By Joanne Kaufman and Alan Carter
Updated February 19, 1990 12:00 PM

The producer of The Joan Rivers Show is giving a pep talk to the overflow audience that has waited more than an hour to get in. “She’s a wonderful lady,” Steve Ober assures the crowd about his blond, brash boss. “But do me a favor. When people give her a standing ovation, it really puts her in a good mood. So when she comes out, would you all stand?”

They all stand. This puts Joan in a good mood. During a break, an audience member tells her how good she looks. This puts Joan in a really good mood. Someone else compliments her figure. This puts Joan in a really, really good mood, particularly because the pressure of launching a new show has added seven—count ’em—seven pounds to Rivers’s form. “And I know exactly where they are,” she says.

Joan Rivers is a bit less sure where she is. Not exactly back on top—a pinnacle she occupied as permanent guest host of The Tonight Show, a headliner in Las Vegas, a woman who could evoke laughs with three simple words: “Can we talk?” But not exactly on the bottom either, a spot Rivers, 56, found without a map when she defected from The Tonight Show to become host of a rival late-night program on the Fox network: the highly touted show fizzled, people stopped taking her calls, restaurant maitre d’s stopped fawning, clubs stopped booking her, friends deserted her. Finally, on Aug. 14, 1987, Rivers’s husband, Edgar, despondent over the failure of the Fox show, committed suicide.

“I’ve had so many losses the past few years,” she says through a haze of tears. “Where do you want to start? The past two years I’ve lost the two most important men in my life—Edgar and Johnny Carson. They’re both gone. One was my life, the other was my career. Edgar was dead, and I was left for dead.”

But whatever else Joan Rivers knows, she knows how to survive. She survived those early days as Joan Molinsky, a Barnard-educated fat girl from Larchmont, N.Y., trying to break into show business when her family only wanted her to get married and club owners only wanted her to get out. She survived meals of “ketchup soup” and hotels not quite classy enough to be considered dives. She’ll get through the bad times carefully chronicled in her journal. “No one has seen these before,” she says. “Walk out of here with these and you’ll have a best-seller.”

Here is one day in the current life of Joan Rivers: “I’m doing the show. I am FAT. I am out of control but I am always out of control. I’m NEVER in control. I’m scared the show won’t work. I am scared the apartment will never be ready. I am scared my career will not continue to grow. I hate getting old. I have few real friends. I’ve had nightmares. I am scared I’m squandering all my money. Am I losing it. I am fat, old, ugly and scared.”

Turn to the next page of Joan’s journal, and the picture changes. “This was a good day, journal. I taped two shows and loved them both. I went to Vegas and did a show. The audience loved it and stood and cheered for me. My dogs were waiting for me in my room. They were happy to see me. I was happy to see them. Everything is terrific.”

Rivers laughs at the mood swings. “See, I make myself crazy,” she says.

Actually, anyone who wants to know how Joan is doing on a given day need only tune in to her syndicated show. She has talked openly on the air about her husband’s suicide, her relationship with daughter Melissa, 21, her hysterectomy, her tummy tuck, her plastic surgery. “There is nothing wrong with letting the audience know that you’ve been through some things too,” she says.

And if Rivers demands straight talk from herself, she’ll brook nothing less from her guests. “I tend to veto the starlets,” she says. “I call them the Heathers. You know, the actresses who come on and say how wonderful everything is. ‘How did you get the job?’ ‘I’m a wonderful actress.’ Puh, puh. And then we have the guys who screw everything in town coming on and saying how great their marriage is. Ugh. I hate people who don’t tell the truth.”

When the red light on the camera is on, so is Rivers. Away from the studio, she is a far cry from the woman who used to make jokes about the ever-expanding Elizabeth Taylor. In the hotel room that’s home until the completion of renovations on her new three-bedroom Manhattan duplex, Rivers is soft-spoken and downright motherly. “Are you comfortable?” she wants to know. “And eat. You’re not eating your french fries, they’ll get cold. Do you want more ice in your soda?”

Minutes later, the mood has changed. Rivers is leaning back against a pillow bearing the needlepointed words NOT TONIGHT, waiting for the question, the one that always comes up, the one about Edgar’s death. “No,” she corrects as the tears begin to flow. “Edgar committed suicide. That is a lot worse. I say it. I force myself to say that word. He didn’t just die. He committed suicide.”

In the Philadelphia hotel room where Rosenberg took an overdose of Valium and alcohol, he left behind brief tape-recorded messages for Melissa and Joan. “For the longest time,” says Rivers, “I couldn’t listen. I didn’t want to listen.” But one day, while she was cleaning up the house, “for no reason I just decided, today is the day to listen,” she says. “I knew that it was time to put Edgar to rest. I can’t begin to tell you how heart-wrenching it is to hear the voice of someone you spent 23 years with say good-bye to you.”

In his message Rosenberg, then 62, said that “he was very depressed living,” says Rivers. “He would come up the driveway and think about death. Everyone was dying. He said, ‘God, what is going on? Joan, you have to move ahead, but without me.’ He left me no choice. I had to move ahead. But my dear, not to have that moment to say I love you to someone, to say good-bye, to say it’s okay and look what we did together. I still don’t understand it.”

The loss so depressed Rivers that a year ago she briefly contemplated suicide herself, but knew she could never inflict such pain on her daughter. “It was obviously a hard time for both of us,” says Melissa Rosenberg, an intern at CBS Evening News in Los Angeles. “But we got through it together. It changed our relationship. Now she knows she can lean on me. I get those calls from her ranting about what a horrible day she’s had.”

Rivers blames Edgar’s suicide mainly on the Fox network. “They sat there and tried to take his power away from him. They humiliated him.” She attributes the failure of her late-night show to the Fox executives who wanted her to tone down her act. “They hired me. They said they wanted Joan Rivers. They said they wanted my outrageousness, and the very first thing they said in a meeting was, ‘Don’t be outrageous.’ ”

Her decision to do another talk show was born of a desire to prove that it was Fox, not she, who’d been at fault. “If I had seen myself as this real failure,” she explains, “I wouldn’t have done this. But this was a case of getting back on the horse. I know I can do a talk show as well as some and better than others. And don’t dare anyone tell me I cannot do something. I had to prove to myself I could.”

Work is Rivers’s priority now. Although she says she came close to remarrying a year ago, she thought better of it and is currently keeping all romantic attachments light. “Dating is not for me,” she says. “I worry about having to have breath mints all the time. Right now I’m married to my career.” Even so, she has started a Find Joan a Honey contest on the show. “It’s the only contest,” she says, “where the winner gets a loser.”

She still misses Edgar, sometimes at the strangest moments. “Once I had this really rotten time in Cleveland,” she says. “I’m all alone, and this was the lowest moment, at Cleveland airport at 5:30 in the morning. But the worst part wasn’t being alone. It was not having anyone to call to say, ‘I’m all right, don’t worry, damn it, the plane is late.’ Someone to just care. So I called my limousine service. To have someone to tell. That was a terrible time. Now I’m stronger and stronger. I’m finding now that being alone sometimes is not so terrible.”

When it does hurt, Rivers turns to her daughter. “When I’m feeling bad, I just start to think, ‘What is so bad? I have a talk show and a great daughter.’ But I always tell her, ‘Melissa, when I die, write a book. Call it Comedienne Dearest and say I was the worst mother in the world.’ Yeah, we’ll both know the truth. But she’ll get $10 million and a big diamond ring out of it.”

—Joanne Kaufman, Alan Carter in New York