January 09, 1978 12:00 PM

The imposing Beverly Hills house—genus California colonial—proclaims success. At 8 a.m. the drive wheel of the establishment is sitting in the laundry room surrounded by machines and tubs, her feet up on a dirty-clothes hamper and a red lollipop in her mouth. Her small head is soaked with hair bleach and she resembles a wet spaniel.

A hairdresser pops in and goes to work. Gradually a familiar figure emerges from the chemicals and rollers. It is comedienne Joan Rivers, known to millions of television watchers and to patrons of Las Vegas and Miami nightclubs, big-city theaters-in-the-round and the summer-tent circuit. Onstage she is a diminutive (5’2″) demon, conducting middle-class America on a blasphemous tour of her U.S.A., a place where morticians at a Beverly Hills funeral say “Have a nice day” as the casket is lowered, where a Hollywood conservationist saves water by throwing a brick into the swimming pool, where Jewish porno films feature one minute of sex—and six minutes of guilt—and Joan’s life is so boring, she is waiting for menopause for something to do.

In actuality Joan Rivers’ life is a torrent of crises, both real and self-inflicted. On this day the primary emergency is her “shot” on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. (“I am crazed with nervousness—coiled. If you’re not a wreck in this business, you’re not around.”) The first phone call of the morning is answered by Joan’s husband, Edgar Rosenberg (a producer in NBC-TV’s early days, a former associate of the elite public relations consultant Anna Rosenberg—the two are not related—and a feature movie producer). Edgar is a calm, cynical, humorous man—Joan’s in-house producer devoted to the full-time job of bringing order to her life and business affairs. (“All my strength, all my audacity I draw from Edgar. He’s a man who wears a tie and thinks I’m right. So I know I’m not totally insane.”) Edgar calls out the phone message from a studio head to Joan in the laundry.

“Tell that son of a bitch no,” she shouts back. “But be nice. Lie.” She laughs.

Her hair done, Joan, in a blue smock, enters the kitchen and the breakfast melee, which includes Edgar, their 9-year-old daughter, Melissa, and the German cook and his wife. The telephone calls continue—and, oddly, babies are a theme. A Detroit columnist checks a rumor that Joan is pregnant and only half believes her amused denials—”My darling, you’d be the first person I’d tell.” Avco Embassy, the film distributors, phone to discuss Joan’s zany advertisements for the movie she has co-authored and directed. Called Rabbit Test, it deals with the first male to become pregnant. The next call is her doctor saying that he might have a baby available for adoption. Joan is ecstatic. “Wonderful! Oh, yes! A thousand percent interested. I think you are just great! Thank you!”

As Joan talks, pacing the kitchen, Melissa pulls on the long phone cord, reeling in her mother like a fisherman. There is last-minute homework to be done—two heads bend over Mesopotamia. Joan takes no more phone calls. “Melissa is everything,” she says. “Somebody I can give total affection to and know it’s happily absorbed. I cry when I talk about her.” Melissa was born to Joan and Edgar in Manhattan in 1968. After almost 10 years, two miscarriages and a tubal pregnancy, Joan (who has never revealed her age but probably is 42) has given up hope for a second child.

Joan drives Melissa to a Beverly Hills orthodontist—who has a picture of his Rolls-Royce in the waiting room—and then on to school. (“I have a very heavy fantasy life. Every morning it’s a spy movie. ‘You will take the child through the lines. Try to look normal!’ “)

Coming back into her house, Joan stops to look compassionately at a sick begonia. She will not allow the gardener to take it away. Its feelings would be hurt. “Every object has feelings,” Joan believes. “Everything is full of pain. I have sets of dishes in the basement, and I can’t throw them out because they’ll feel terrible. Old shoes—break their hearts.” When she cuts flowers, Joan never leaves one alone on the bush. She leaves two, for companionship.

It is time to prepare for the Carson show. At the kitchen table Joan’s quick fingers riffle through “The Book,” her loose-leaf compendium of jokes, most of them originally spoken and taped during ad lib performances at a tiny Beverly Hills night spot called Ye Little Club. A Tonight Show producer telephones, and like a diva singing in half voice, she rattles off the humor that Carson later will cue with questions.

The next crisis is the voice of God. In a small, muffled Hollywood screening room Joan and Edgar explain to the sound engineer that God’s voice at the end of Rabbit Test must resound off the dome of Heaven—”The Cecil B. De Mille effect,” says Joan. “I want the voice to part the studio.” Sorry, says the engineer, another client is using the reverberation equipment. “Okay,” snaps Joan, determined, an irate hummingbird, “I’m not paying as of this minute.” The “reverbs” arrive. (“In this town I have learned that courtesy is taken as a weakness. I used to say please and thank you and ask nicely. I have learned you have to slap ’em up against the wall, and they totally understand it.”) Joan departs, however, with lavish protestations of happiness—her need to leave every person in a glow of friendship. Later she learns that the final reel of her film was recorded one decibel too low—and there is not time to correct it before a series of sneak previews.

Joan sees this as the story of her life. “My whole career has been one rejection after another,” she says, “and then going back and back and pushing against everything and everybody. Getting ahead by small, ugly steps.” Now a slender sheaf of nerves, Joan in her youth was fat. “In my class picture I was the entire front row.” As a Connecticut College freshman she came downstairs to meet a blind date—who turned to his friend and said, “Why didn’t you tell me!” (Or so she recalls; Joan’s conversation tends toward one-liners stitched together. “I’m still waiting to wake up pretty,” she tops herself.) Her father was a successful Larchmont, N.Y. doctor, but her mother, born to wealth, liked to spend beyond their means. Joan, a hypersensitive child, grew up in constant fear of financial disaster.

From the moment she was self-aware, Joan wanted to be an actress. Her strict family was appalled. To them show business was Sodom and Gomorrah with tinsel. Finally, at 23, she ran away from home—in Bermuda shorts—and did not talk to her family for a year. She switched to comedy in 1958 and began seven years of humiliation and frustration. (“If a trash can had a bulb, I played it. Strip joints. Places so Mafioso you were scared to say, ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this.’ “)

The first year she was fired from every job. Once an owner shouted over the loudspeaker, “Get her off!” She played one joint for five dollars and her manager demanded 50 cents commission. Another manager (“We shared a phone booth”) took her to audition for the Carson show seven times. After the producers turned her down, she was reduced to doing routines for their secretaries as they ate lunch and answered phones.

In 1965, as a favor to her manager’s other client, Bill Cosby, Joan was put on the Carson show—billed not as a comic but as a woman gag writer. (“It was a mercy booking.”) She was an instant hit. Today in Las Vegas she is the highest-priced opening act—$55,000 per week—in the history of show business. But until 1971 she still took her stage makeup home with her every night, fearing she would be fired the next morning.

Joan moved to the Coast in 1973 and began writing TV sitcom pilots. Then the goal became a movie. (“I know I’m as funny as Mel Brooks when he started.”) She collaborated with Jay Redack, the producer of Hollywood Squares, and their script is a bacchanalia of irreverence. (“It’s what I’ve always done in my act. Say the brutal truths of life—but funny. Always risk putting the audience into shock. I asked a woman in the front row, ‘Would you have slept with Onassis for $26 million dollars?’ She said, ‘No.’ I mean how dare she! You know goddamn well…I want to make them aware. The whole country is so uptight. The hypocrisy…it burns me up! You’re not a better person because you say, ‘God bless, God love…’ “)

The movie was budgeted for $1 million. Joan and Edgar spent a year ransacking the country for backers, courting anybody who showed interest. At one dinner party, realizing their guests were not going to invest, they put the good wine away and served the vin ordinaire. Unable to raise the full sum, Joan insisted they start shooting anyway, using the $300,000 they could raise with the help of a second mortgage on their house. That meant betting their financial solvency on the movie. Edgar refused. Joan said, “All right. I don’t care. I won’t wait. I’ll get a divorce and use my half of the settlement.”

Edgar moved out of the house. (“He took the good car.”) Two days later he returned and, as producer, signed a million dollars’ worth of contracts. Joan’s faith was justified. During the five and a half weeks of shooting, money trickled in a step ahead of bankruptcy.

Joan now awaits the opening of her picture next month in seven medium-sized cities, racked by a combination of ferocity and fear. It stars Billy Crystal, the gay son in Soap. She worries that the critics, who she feels are already prejudiced against uppity comics, will compare her maiden effort to the contemporary work of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, and not to their low-budget beginnings a decade ago. (“I don’t care what the critics…sure there are things wrong with it, but nobody can tell me it isn’t a funny script. I’m going to grab everybody and say, ‘Just tell me you didn’t laugh, and then I’ll leave you alone.’ “)

But at the moment there is little she can do about the movie. She packs for Las Vegas where she opens at the MGM Grand Hotel the next day, and then she and Edgar drive to NBC for the Carson taping. She enjoys talismans of her success—the guard at the studio gate saying, “Hi, Joan,” the gate rising, the reserved parking space awaiting her inside. (“I never take anything for granted. We must be aware that we’re privileged. So many of us totally forget in this business.”) Her segment of the Tonight Show, she thinks, goes poorly, and on the trip home she is disconsolate. “You despise yourself,” she laments. “It’s total self-rejection.” Her collaborator Redack is waiting to work on their second movie script.

Finally, at midnight, Joan walks through her house (“a petite Versailles”), which she herself decorated—soft, pale beige rugs and walls, acres of books, all read, 18th-century French furniture, real and mock, crystal sconces and chandeliers. “My house is so pretty, so calm now,” she says. “I feel I’ve earned it today. It’s the only place I feel maybe somebody likes me. Edgar. Melissa. I think they’d go to the edge for me.”

In bed Joan begins leafing through a stack of cheap mail-order catalogues, comparing them, filling out order blanks, most of which she will never send. (“Escape is shopping without your lashes on.”) Then, a history buff, she switches to her idea of a good book: Medieval History: The Life and Death of a Civilization. Her canopied bed is mock Middle Age, curtained to keep out cold and pestilence. “I’m enclosed,” says Joan Rivers, “totally safe, with a lot of blankets, especially on my feet, because ‘It’ can get you, and ‘It’ will usually get you from the feet. I can’t ever have my bed against the outside wall. Otherwise, I’m fine,” she adds. “Normal. Like everybody else.”

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