In 1954, a nice Jewish girl from Larchmont, daughter to a doctor and a housewife, graduated from Barnard with a degree in English—you might know the type? Though the last time Joan Rivers had anything in common with her peers might very well have been at the age of 21. (On bringing Woody Allen home to meet her parents: “This is not a nice boy from Yale.”)
She got her big break doing clean-cut stand-up on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But she’s as well known for her comic genius as she is for a chameleon-like appeal that has kept her in various nooks and crannies of popular culture from the fifties to the aughts. We know the 79-year-old from the QVC, red-carpet reporting with her daughter, that Netflix-streaming documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Louis, and her unabashed penchant for plastic surgery (she played herself on Nip/Tuck).
The Eye chatted with Rivers on a Saturday morning, before she was off to Europe for a leg of her comedy tour.
Do you have any Barnard jokes?
No. You know, Martha Stewart is always waiting for me to do a Barnard joke on one of her programs. But no! No, no, no. That would be stupid.
You were an English major
I was a stargazer, but yes. But Barnard girls are smart.
You recently went back to Barnard, right?
I went back for my 50th reunion. I went back to do a speech. My favorite line was “Remember, it’s not who you know—it’s whom.” Half of them got it. The other half have sunken back into stupidity. I always loved Barnard because the girls never wanted to be something; they were. A girl didn’t want to be a poetess; she was a poet.
A lot of plastic surgery in the crowd?
I’ll tell you one thing. A lot of them looked good, and a lot of them didn’t. And you knew exactly why.
When you first started out, you closed shows with the line “I’m Joan Rivers, and I put out.” When did you lose your virginity?
That’s a very good question. Probably junior year, or maybe senior year. I think junior year.
Do you remember to whom!
Yes, I remember. And it’s none of your business.
I thought I’d ask.
As a matter of fact, he’s a professor at Columbia now. But it’s still none of your business. [laughs]
If you were 22, what would you do?
What I did then. Go after what you want. Don’t let them push you. The first ten years sets your life for the rest of it. For god sakes, don’t get married.
Right! Your first marriage lasted six weeks, your second husband committed suicide, and you were engaged to Orin Lehman, though you never married.
I think women must get married. There’s nothing like marriage. It’s a partnership. You have your children and your home base. Very, very important. But what you are at 22, you are not at 32. So don’t do it.
You’re a Republican, right? Did you watch the debates?
Of course. They were speeches, of course, not debates. I think we’re in trouble. The President doesn’t know the color of the oval office. He’s been campaigning for two years. We have a terrible choice. It’s like, “Who is your favorite Menendez brother?”
Any opinion on Sasha and Malia?
Who cares? How old are you?
That’s a very dumb question from a smart girl. I don’t give a shit about what the kids look like.
Speaking of politics—is it true Gaddafi tried to rent your East Side apartment?
Yes, isn’t that great! I was so excited. He offered so much money. There’s this one neighbor I really hate so I was going to do it. Just to upset her. Wouldn’t you know it, he got killed. It’s really upsetting.
I guess that is a bummer.
A real bummer. I had already called the decorator to say we were redoing the whole place.
You are rather famously the president of your condo board in New York, yet you moved in with your daughter in California recently to do a reality show.
I live out there four days a week.
So no one has usurped you on the board?
Oh, no. I am the old lady upstairs who cares. It is not a democracy. It is absolutely a benevolent dictatorship—time to fix the lobby!
Do you feel like you have control over your career?
I think anyone that ever thinks, “Look where I am,” will start to slip. No. We should think there is something better to achieve. I’m a worrier.
Your “Now or Never” tour starts in Western Europe next week, right?
I call it the “See Her Now Because She’ll Be Dead in a Week” tour. I’ve done the “Next to Last World Tour Ever.” That was a couple years ago. I did the “Melissa [her daughter] Pulls the Plug” tour.
One last question: Who should the kids be idolizing these days?
It was easier in my time. Look among yourselves or something.
That doesn’t sound promising.
Well, you’re a senior, you must be looking forward to something. Where are you going to work?
At a magazine.
If you need help when you get out, save this number. I have connections.