Rivers delivers trademark snark to standing ovation

By Associate Editor

Snarky jabs laced with Hollywood wisdom flew as veteran comedienne Joan Rivers made a highly anticipated appearance at Columbia.

Rivers’ Feb. 25 sold-out performance at Film Row Cinema in the Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., was the final act in the annual Conversations in the Arts series. Horatio Sanz, former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, appeared as part of the series in October 2013.

Rivers entered Film Row Cinema to a standing ovation, setting her up for her first jab of the evening.

“Sit down!” Rivers said. “Standing up and clapping at the start doesn’t mean a f–king thing. I don’t know why I’m here, [CITA] is serious.”

Rivers told the audience that she agreed to perform at the college because several other actresses were doing the same, jokingly pointing out fictitious tours by Winona Ryder, “It’s Better to Give Than Receive,” and Katie Holmes’ discussion of the film chronicling her marriage to Tom Cruise, “12 Years A Slave.”

President Kwang-Wu Kim introduced Rivers to the crowd and said he was honored to have her speak as part of the CITA series.  He said the college selected Rivers to promote and raise awareness for its new comedy studies program.

“[CITA] gives us the opportunity to work with the best, which is always our goal,” Kim said.

Rivers said she applauds the college’s comedy writing and performance program, especially because writing is an integral part of the profession.

“Comedy writing is the game,” Rivers said. “It’s the name of the game. Comedy performing—eh. There are highs and there are lows. If there is a low, there will be a high, and if there is a high, then there is really going to be a low. You’re going to have a rough ride.”

Rivers said it took a long time for her to land on her feet after she left home and moved to New York City after high school, first as a student at Barnard College, from which she was graduated in 1954. She said she lived in her car for seven years while chasing success.

 “I don’t know a friend with true talent that didn’t make it,” Rivers said. “It will happen and you can never forget it. To those who say it won’t happen, it will happen.”

Rivers said her opportunity came when Bill Cosby got her a spot on “The Tonight Show,” a job that would later cause one of the most widely known entertainment feuds after Johnny Carson, a television host, blacklisted Rivers in the comedy world. Rivers said she has been rejected by the show seven times.

“After the show, Carson said, ‘You’re going to be a star,’” Rivers said. “The next morning, I woke up and the world was different.”

Rivers later received her own show on FOX, which she worked on with her husband, Edgar Rosenberg. She was later presented with the decision of firing her husband or losing the show. Rivers chose her husband and the network canceled the show. Rivers said Carson blacklisted her from “The Tonight Show” because the comedy industry suffered after she left her show. Her husband committed suicide three weeks later.

“It was like ‘Sophie’s Choice,’” Rivers joked. “I made the wrong choice. Children, learn from my mistakes—I was stupid. Stop your humanity. Learn how to stomp on your mother’s face.”

Rivers said NBC’s ban continued into Jay Leno’s reign, until Jimmy Fallon invited her on Feb. 17 for his first night as the host of “The Tonight Show.” Rivers said she appreciated the gesture.

“I think [NBC’s ban] was because I was a woman,” Rivers said. “I cried in the car on the way home [after Fallon’s show].”

After NBC’s ban and the death of her husband, Rivers said she had to start over. She began performing at smaller venues again, and she worked her way up to her own daytime show, “The Joan Rivers Show,” which won her an Emmy in 1990.

“Don’t think you can do only one thing,” Rivers said. “When a window is shut, you go around it. Never turn down an opportunity as long as it’s related to the core thing you want to do. Your pride should be in your work, not yourself.”

John Green, interim dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts, said Rivers was funny and profound. Green said he thinks Rivers realistically portrayed post-college life, especially for comedy majors.

“When you initially leave college, you come from the high of a college experience and suddenly you’re out in the world,” Green said. “The world doesn’t owe you anything.”

Rivers stressed the importance of asking for help and discussed how her friends helped her when she started her line of jewelry for QVC, a home shopping network.

“When you’re asked, there is one word—yes—to everything,” Rivers said. “You’re young. You can f–king learn it.  I said I always wanted to do [QVC]. I didn’t know the first thing about it.”

Rivers poked fun at the Kardashians, particularly Kim Kardashian’s infamous sex tape. However, she did praise the family’s ability to take turbulent life events and make them prosperous, a characteristic she said is essential to success.

“I’m not saying do porn,” Rivers said. “But learn how to take every little thing and spin it. You remember the ones who stand out.”

Young performers cannot be successful if they focus on the negatives of the industry instead of the positives, Rivers said, likening it to reports of Princess Diana’s unhappiness.

“She had a crown,” Rivers said. “If I had a crown, I would go back to the people from high school and say, ‘Check my hat.’”

Rivers ended her performance with a call to appreciate the comedy industry, particularly for the students in the audience.

“You’re all so lucky because you’re going into a profession and life that will never be boring,” Rivers said. “You should thank God for that, and if you’re lucky, [for] having a close, supporting family that lives in another state.”