By Nancy Collins
Updated April 25, 1983 12:00 PM

As she hosts The Tonight Show this week (marking at least 80 times she has subbed for Johnny Carson), Joan Rivers can rest assured that America is, at last, catching up to the savage brand of humor she has been dishing out for more than 20 years. In her mid-403, Rivers’ career has never been brighter. This month she hosted Saturday Night Live on the heels of a hugely successful 12-city tour (her Carnegie Hall debut sold out in two days); her latest comedy album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?, is climbing up the charts, and she is putting the finishing touches on her autobiography, Getting Started, scheduled this fall from Dell. All of which seems light-years removed from the getting started of Joan Molinsky, the Brooklyn-born doctor’s daughter who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College and defied her parents to spend seven years as a starving Greenwich Village comedienne in the late 1950s and 1960s. Her barbed-wire tongue (“Jackie O looks like E.T. without makeup”) and angst-filled act (“In my class picture, I was the whole front row”) have now made Rivers one of America’s most popular entertainers—and Johnny’s favorite guest host (he provided her first big break in 1965). Once a writer for Candid Camera, Rivers is now a director and screenwriter, as well as a headliner in Las Vegas. Rivers lives quietly (believe it or not) in Beverly Hills with her British-born, Cambridge-educated husband of 17 years, producer Edgar Rosenberg, and their daughter, Melissa, 14. At her antique-filled home (“If Louis XIV hasn’t touched it, I don’t want it”), Rivers let go on some of her favorite subjects—including herself.

Who do you think is the tackiest couple in America?

Edgar and me. Absolutely the tackiest! Second tackiest? Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Just tacko. Oh, I’ll tell you tacky: Dudley Moore and Susan Anton. She has hickies on her knees. You should have a sexual relationship, but don’t flaunt it when it’s that grotesque.

Is Nancy Reagan popular with your audiences?

She was for a while. Things turned when she started buying china. But I’m all for Nancy in her snappy outfits and her formalities. When you go to the White House, you want finger bowls—not Rosalynn Carter hitting a pot and yelling, “Come and get it.”

Have you ever been a guest at the White House?

I’ve been invited there by every Administration except the Johnsons because I said Lynda Bird had no style. I said, “I took Lynda Bird into a shoe store, and she put her foot into the size measurer and said, ‘I’ll take it.’ ”

Is Jackie O still a crowd pleaser?

I use her as a great example of what women should do: Always marry for money.

Do you want your daughter Melissa to marry for money?

I want her to marry a boy who wants to make money and who is fabulous to his mother-in-law, who’ll say to her, “Oh Melissa, please let your mother come along on our honeymoon—just this once.”

Is there anybody you won’t mention in your act?

For a while I couldn’t mention Princess Grace. I was doing a lot on her and those two trampy daughters. It really pulled a chunk out of my act when she fell over. But now I’m starting to put the girls back in.

Don’t your jokes hurt people?

If I thought I hurt anybody, I’d go crazy. That’s why I pick on the biggies; they can take it.

What hurts you?

Everything. Everything! I’m terribly sensitive. I want to please everybody. I cannot work on a set unless everybody loves me and I love everybody.

Is your humor based on the theory that the best offense is a good defense?

Of course. If I say, “I’m getting older, my husband isn’t paying attention to me, and my body is falling,” then no one can hurt me. There’s a germ of truth to everything I say onstage, so saying it makes me feel better. If I say, “I can stand on the Matterhorn and nurse the villagers down below,” and they laugh, then I don’t feel so bad when I have to put my bra on around my knees.

Speaking of falling bodies, have you had plastic surgery?

I had my eyes done, and I got my nose done because I had a deviated septum. We thinned it down a little.

What does your husband say about that?

“Let her do it, it’s a mid-life crisis.” I’m also exercising a lot. One day I saw dimples on my thighs and said, “Shirley Temple? No, it’s me!” So every day I do 100 sit-ups, 100 deep knee bends and 100 arm things.

How close are you to Johnny Carson?

Before I did his show, nobody wanted me. Even my so-called agent told me, “You’re too old. It’s not gonna happen.” I was 28. I went on Carson, and that night on the air he said, “You’re going to be a star.” And I do not forget. It sounds stupid, but 18 years later it’s still very much master-servant. He comes to see me, and it’s the boss coming. He gave me everything.

How do you prepare for The Tonight Show?

You start with good jokes. Beyond that, there’s the monologue, great guests and clothes. I borrow the clothes from designers like Calvin Klein and Arnold Scaasi. We courier them from New York, I wear them on the show, and they go back the next day.

What makes for a good show?

I think TV should be gossipy, exciting, unpredictable. I ask questions that I would want answered as a private person.

For example?

Victoria Principal is always pure gold. The first time she came on the show, I was given a list of things she wouldn’t discuss, but Andy Gibb wasn’t on it. So I asked, “Were you ever engaged to Andy Gibb?” She said no, but two months earlier she had come to my dressing room in Vegas with Gibb and showed me the cheesy little engagement ring he gave her. I said, “Wait a minute, you showed me the ring. Don’t tell me no.” Finally she admitted it. And then last time I think she lied about her age, and I caught her. Anyway, she’s coming back on the show again, because she always thinks she can outsmart me.

How did you meet Edgar?

He saw me on Carson and hired me to rewrite a script for Peter Sellers. Four days later we were married. It was just right.

Weren’t you engaged once to a college professor?

Yes, but while we were engaged his wife got pregnant.

Did you know he was married?

No, it was not an easy time. But I turned that unhappiness into a wonderful routine on professors and their wives. I got out a lot of hostility.

Who was your first husband?

His family owned department stores. I married a prince, a prince with a big ring, an apartment on the East Side and a maid. It lasted six months. A marriage counselor told us it was his fault, not mine. But I’m so neurotic I’m sure I was hard to live with.

What is Edgar like ?

He’s charming, well read, very sweet, has a dry sense of humor and is much nicer than I am. People think he’s the son of a bitch, but I’m the one who says, “You tell them to go to hell.” Edgar just makes the calls.

What’s the craziest thing he’s ever done?

He once mooned David Brenner from a passing limo. This from a man who is so English he wears vests with his pajamas.

Is Edgar ever jealous of the attention you get?

No, because we both realize that I’m a product. He says, “Let’s make the product better,” not, “That bitch is getting too much adulation.”

Do other men attract you?

Oh, sure. I fantasize a lot, God knows. But I’m not just looking for a roll in the sack. I would look for a great relationship with someone who adores me. If I did fall in love it would be traumatic, so I hope it doesn’t happen.

But you enjoy attention from men?

Oh, I love it when men come on to me. I can’t tell you that I don’t.

What type of man attracts you?

I don’t like blonds. You could put me in bed with Robert Redford and nothing would happen. All the men who have been special in my life are always the same type—smart, funny and dark. Usually Jews and Italians.

Was your first husband dark?

He was blond. Isn’t that interesting?

Name three men you find sexy.

Paul Newman, definitely. Robert Mitchum, if he’d just wear deodorant. Standing downwind, Mitchum is probably the sexiest man going today. And Roy Scheider. He’s very sexy.

Do you think you’re sexy?

Really, deep down? Truthfully? Yes. Women never see me as a threat, but men find me attractive.

What’s the saddest thing that’s happened to you?

My mother’s death six years ago. I still can’t talk about it. She was my best friend. Here she was, my mother, who looked like a dowager with the pearls, and we’d go to the movies and throw spitballs. It was so sudden. I spoke with her on a Wednesday afternoon. She died that night of a heart attack.

How did you handle it?

I was so angry I started throwing out her clothes. I said, “Just give me one hour back.” When was the last time I had said, “I love you”? You know what saved me? She had ordered clothes that kept coming after she died. And she had two chairs reupholstered—they came the day of the funeral. Until the day she died, she had kept going.

Were you bitter when your parents didn’t help you starting out?

I had tried it their way—the right schools, the right man—and none of it worked. If I had said I wanted to be a doctor, they would have said, “Go scrub up, here’s all the money you need.” My mother was from a wealthy Russian family, and I was raised with governesses and suddenly I was saying, “Goodbye, I’m going to Greenwich Village, I’ll be home at 4 a.m.” This was a tremendous blow to them.

Where do you get your drive ?

From being the second child and a fat child. My sister was prettier, smarter and better than I was in every way. I had teachers who said, “You’re not as bright as Barbara,” even though we both always made honors.

Are you close to your sister?

Not as close as I’d like to be. She’s very much a Main Line Philadelphia lawyer. I think what I do embarrasses her terribly because I’m so unladylike onstage.

What does the money mean to you?

Everything. I was a doctor’s daughter but I left all that. I starved and lived on ketchup soup. Those years stay with you. To this day when I check out of a hotel, I take everything—the soap, the Kleenex, the Sanka packages. It’s all packed.

Is it hard on Melissa being your daughter?

It’s very tough, but it comes with the territory. She knows that’s the price of all this—the horses, going to Europe, buying three polo shirts instead of one. I have told her from the beginning that this is not your typical life.

What’s she like?

She’s a normal, decent kid with a good sense of humor. Right now she’s most interested in horseback riding. I tell her to keep brushing the horses until she’s 27. They’re taking her right through boys, drinking and pot.

Is Joan Rivers the same person offstage as on?

Totally different. In private, I’m very much a mother. Very conservative and very boring.

So what does become a Semi-Legend most?

Knowing enough not to call yourself a legend. I haven’t peaked. I hope I’m just getting started.

Have you ever seen a psychiatrist?

No. It would straighten me out—and there goes the act.