Talking to groundbreaking comedian Joan Rivers, you learn to avoid words like “icon,” “legend” and “legacy.”
Rivers, 78, lives very much in the now.
“People say, ‘When were you the happiest?’ and I always say, ‘The present,’ ” Rivers explained in her trademark rasp. “I don’t say, ‘I have to be relevant.’ It just happens.”
Known for her workaholic nature, rapid-fire delivery and self-deprecating sense of humor, the woman who famously asked “Can we talk?” has more than 750,000 followers on Twitter and about 90,000 Facebook fans. She brings her sassy stand-up act to San Luis Obispo on Jan. 28, followed by a Feb. 9 performance at the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez.
“I have great respect for my audiences,” Rivers said. “I watch other comedians (and) they’re talking down to them: ‘Hey, guys, did this ever happen to you?’ I always think of my audiences as smart.”
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, Rivers always dreamed of becoming an actress. (She remembers seeing “Carousel” and “West Side Story” on Broadway.) However, her parents didn’t support her show-business aspirations.
“If I had said I wanted to be a physicist or a doctor, they would have said ‘Go, go, go,’ ” recalled Rivers, who studied English literature and anthropology at New York City’s Barnard College.
But an actress?
“That was a word for ‘hooker,’ ” the comedian joked.
Undeterred, she began performing at Greenwich Village comedy clubs in the early 1960s, adopting “Joan Rivers” as her stage name. Her big break came in 1965 when she appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
Rivers would appear on the show 60 times over the next two decades, frequently as a guest host, before her friendship with Carson turned into a very public feud.
Their relationship soured in 1986 when “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” premiered on Fox. (Rivers later won an Emmy Award for her daytime talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show.”)
“When I went off to do my own show, he cut me off and tried to ruin me,” Rivers said of Carson. “That’s when I realized he was a very competitive mana mean man and a very vindictive man.”
Despite their falling out, she still considers the legendary host “the best straight man ever.”
“You could take (David) Letterman and (Jay) Leno and put them all into the whole package, and still not get Johnny,” Rivers said.
Over the years, Rivers has built a reputation as a fearless, unflinchingly frank comic.
“Nothing is off-limits to me,” said Rivers, who flaunts her willingness to crack jokes about sex, aging and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She’s even remarkably open about her multiple plastic surgeries.
Rivers credits Lenny Bruce, the caustic comic who famously battled obscenity charges in the 1960s, as her main inspiration.
“Of all of (the comedians) of the 20th century, he’s the one who broke all the boundaries,” she said.
Rivers’ own boundary-breaking career has encompassed stints as an author, celebrity spokesperson, radio host, movie director and playwright. Her myriad acting credits include movies ( “Shrek 2,” “The Smurfs”), TV shows ( “Arthur,” “The Simpsons,” “Spaceballs: The Animated Series”) and her own plays ( “Fun City,” “Sally Marr and Her Escorts,” “Broke and Alone” and “Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress”).
Rivers has also carved out a career as a television personality, thanks in part to her numerous red-carpet appearances with daughter Melissa.
“Melissa and I started the red carpet, literally,” Rivers said, beginning with their E! Entertainment Television coverage of the Golden Globe Awards in 1994. “Somebody said we made walking into a building an event.”
Now, following their joint appearances on “Celebrity Family Feud” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” Joan and Melissa Rivers are starring on the WeTV reality series “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” The show’s second season premieres Tuesday.
Joan Rivers can also be seen on the E! show “Fashion Police,” trading catty comments with style expert George Kotsiopoulos, reality star Kelly Osbourne and “E! News” anchor Giuliana Rancic. The popular program switches to an hourlong format this season.
“ ‘Fashion Police’ is so fun to do because it’s so irreverent,” said Rivers, who has hawked her own line of accessories, apparel and jewelry on QVC since 1990. “Fashion is very similar to show business. It’s very theatrical.”
That theatricality undoubtedly appeals to Rivers, who still cherishes her status as an actress.
“Every comedian is a wonderful actor,” she said, using Don Rickles’s “brilliant” performance in “Casino” as one example. “When we come out and we make things look like we said them for the first time, that’s acting.”
Rivers has spent plenty of time in the spotlight as of late.
She was the subject of a Comedy Central Roast in 2009 and a documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” in 2010. (That’s not the first time she’s been under such scrutiny, either. She and her daughter play themselves in the 1994 docudrama “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.”)
As the veteran comedian approaches her 80s, it’s clear she has no intention of taking it easy.
“It’s not like I would like to get away from here and do needlepoint or raise mice,” Rivers said. “I love being able to make a living and doing what I do.”