By APRIL DIODATO
OBSERVER Lifestyles Editor
Joan Rivers shows no sign of slowing down.
Joan Rivers will perform Aug. 4 at the Festival of Comedy.
Now 50 years into her career, the legendary comedienne is in high demand: she stars in two television shows on two different networks, her popular jewelry line for QVC is expanding into clothing, and she's appearing onstage in a different city several nights a week. But no matter how busy Rivers is these days, when she heard about the opportunity to help celebrate the 100th birthday of her late friend and fellow icon Lucille Ball, she immediately obliged.
"My agent called me and asked if I'd like to be a part of it and I said, 'Love to,'" Rivers recalled. "What I find fascinating is that comedy hasn't aged - you watch the Lucy show and it's as wonderful now as it was when they first aired it."
Rivers will headline the Lucille Ball Festival of Comedy, to be held in Ball's native Jamestown on Aug. 3 through 7. As part of the varied, extensive festivities, she will do a characteristically uncensored stand-up performance on Thursday, Aug. 4, at 8 p.m. at the Reg Lenna Civic Center.
The Festival of Comedy
Why: To celebrate Lucille Ball's 100th birthday and her legacy of laughter
When: Aug. 3-7
Where: Jamestown, with events throughout downtown and at the Lucille-Ball-Desi Arnaz Center
QUEENS OF COMEDY
Like many Americans did and still do, Rivers grew up watching "I Love Lucy" and later, the two ladies became comedic contemporaries. As an up-and-comer, Rivers met Ball, and got to know her professionally and personally.
"Our manager was the same manager, so that made a big difference," Rivers said.
The ladies first became acquainted while hobnobbing at different Hollywood events in the late 1960s. They were both presenters at the Emmys and ran into each other at charity functions and the like.
In 1973, Rivers got the opportunity of a lifetime: a role opposite the famous redhead on "Here's Lucy." In the episode, Ball winds up on jury duty alongside a young Rivers, and the two characters immediately despise each other. As the other jurors rush to agree on a verdict in order to keep their commitments for the evening (Rivers is expecting a proposal from her boyfriend at a romantic dinner), Ball is the only holdout. Plans thwarted and stuck together in a hotel overnight, they wind up as roommates and become entangled in a slapstick physical altercation in their pajamas. "You ruined my entire life!" an incredulous Rivers shouts at Ball.
"It was the first time I worked with her and, boy oh boy, (I was) very, very impressed," Rivers said.
Was she intimidated by the star?
"Of course! She was Lucy!" Rivers exclaimed. "And I was the new girl on the block and she was the queen, the goddess. She was lovely and terrific, supportive, and it was a great experience."
As her star rose and Rivers become the sole guest host of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," she interviewed Ball as she came on to promote her different projects throughout the 1980s.
While watching the appearances, it's apparent that the two women shared an affinity for one another as they joked and laughed together like old comrades; and according to Rivers, they did become pals off-screen.
"We would meet, we had dinner a couple of times together," she said. "Edgar and I - my husband and I - went over to her house a couple of times. It was very nice."
Ball never gave her advice ("And what would I think to ask her? That would be very presumptuous."), but they did share some gossip.
"We talked about the business, we talked about other people in the business and if they were any good," Rivers remembered fondly.
Rivers did Ball's last talk show interview in 1986 when she was 75 years old, just three years before her death. Rivers remembers the conversation as heartbreaking, with a dejected Ball telling her host about the poor reviews she was receiving for her show "Life With Lucy."
"I'm thrilled to be working but I didn't have any idea that I would get chastised for working," Ball related during the interview. "I got some lousy notices - if you'll excuse the word notices - for coming back to work at all that threw me. I cried, my God, I cried."
Quickly becoming fired up in the star's defense, Rivers reassured her.
"Don't you think the press in this country has overstepped? It's becoming like the English press now," she told Ball. "My show was knocked before we went on the air. Someone at the New York Times doesn't like us. Pick a finger!"
With that line, a cheerful Rivers - then with enormous hair and even bigger sequined shoulder pads - finally managed to get Ball to crack a smile and kept her laughing for the rest of the interview.
"She was very depressed and very down, and that made me very sad," Rivers said. "You know, on 'The Tonight Show' you'd get all these legends that I had grown up watching and suddenly here's Lucy and she's saying things like, 'They don't want me anymore.' And you're thinking, 'Oh, God, how hard that woman worked!'"
EVOLUTION AND REINVENTION
Rivers did not initially intend to go into comedy she dreamed of becoming an actress. As a student at Barnard College in New York City, she acted in nearly every school production. In the 2010 critically acclaimed documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," she explains that she still doesn't consider herself a comedienne, "I'm an actress playing a comedienne." But she couldn't resist her destiny making people laugh was in her genes.
"I was very funny, my whole family's funny," Rivers remarked.
She got her big break in 1965 when she was booked on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." The seven-year-long road there was treacherous, paved with "sleazy agents, tawdry clubs and hostile audiences," according to her official website. Ever resourceful, Rivers finally got her foot in the door by finding a back entrance.
"I used to go in to make these secretaries laugh so they would tell the agent, 'She's funny. You should see her,'" she said. "And one secretary told me, 'You should do stand up. My husband's a comic and you're very funny.' So I did it. And those doors suddenly opened. And I was smart enough to go through."
Since becoming a household name, her career has had many ups and downs. The one moment of which she is most proud is her Emmy, won for her daytime TV talk show, "The Joan Rivers Show."
"That's the only thing in our business they can't take away from you," she said. "If you keep it at home locked up."
Doors continue to open for Rivers. She just received word from E! that she will be ripping celebrities to shreds for their oft-ill-conceived red carpet choices for another year on "Fashion Police," which airs weekly on Friday nights. Her mother-daughter reality show on WEtv, "Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" has been renewed for a second season.
"I just came from working and planning it all out yesterday in California," Rivers said. "Life is good! No complaints."
Though she's certainly accomplished a lot already, Rivers still has goals that she hopes to reach.
"First of all, I'd love to go back to Broadway because I'm a New York City girl and when you grow up, that's what you want," she rattled off. "Love to see 'Fashion Police' go on forever, love to do two more years of 'Joan and Melissa.'"
And that's not all. Her enthusiasm could not be contained when discussing her desire to finally star in a major motion picture.
"I've never been in a movie really," Rivers said. "I've always been, you know, little, bitty parts. So I'd love to do a real comedy movie. And we could show Jennifer Aniston how to do it."
"If you're gonna spend $18 and be bored, I'd rather just sit and be home," she quipped.
THE FESTIVAL OF COMEDY
The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Center has held birthday celebrations for Ball before but not like this one. There's a new sheriff in town, Journey Gunderson, and she plans to revamp the event in her first year as the center's executive director.
"This year's festival is a true brand expansion into contemporary comedy, as well as honoring the legacy of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz," Gunderson said. "In more recent years, the contemporary comedy part of things had fallen by the wayside."
According to the executive director, Ball felt most strongly about giving new comedians an opportunity to be showcased. That is the focus of two festival highlights: the Rooftop Stand-Up Showcase and Story Pirates. The former is a partnership with San Francisco-based Rooftop Comedy, featuring 10 comedians from throughout the U.S. at events happening on Friday and Saturday during festival weekend - LateNight Comedy in The Tropicana Room (held at 10:30 p.m., Aug. 5 and 6), and Happy Hour Comedy on The Plaza (5:30 p.m., Aug. 5 and 6). Among the comedians are frequent "Chelsea Lately" guest and writer Christina Pazsitzky; Nate Bargatz, winner of the 2010 New York City and Boston Comedy Festivals; and Costaki Economopoulos of "The Bob and Tom Show."
"That's where you can see the greatest showcase of up-and-comers that's going on anywhere right now in the country," Gunderson said.
Story Pirates will display the talents of some much younger comedians elementary school children. It's a a sketch comedy musical based entirely on their stories, to be presented on Saturday, Aug. 6, at 11:30 a.m.
The Festival of Comedy is also about paying homage to the legends, and Gunderson is proud of this year's headliner.
"Because it was the year of the 100th birthday, we really wanted to bring somebody to town whose career was worthy of honoring Lucille Ball, and for that reason, Joan Rivers really fit the bill," Gunderson said. "She started in her 20s on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' and survived all of this time, and really is hitting a high point in her career at this age. She was somebody that I thought, her career resilience and tenacity paralleled Lucille Ball's."
As Rivers prepares for her upcoming performance in Jamestown, she admits that she still gets nervous before she goes onstage.
"Friends don't know that and they will come to see you before you go onstage," she said. "And you want to say, 'Do you go to see a surgeon before he's going to go in and operate? Why are you here?' I'm very nervous, please go away, please do not talk to me. After the show, I'm thrilled to see you."
When asked how she fights her stage fright, Rivers said she "just deals with it," but for her fellow comedians, there is one thing she prescribes.
"M&Ms and coffee," Rivers said. "A lot of M&Ms and a lot of coffee. That gets you out on the stage and then the minute the audience laughs, you relax."
For tickets to "An Evening with Joan Rivers" on Aug. 4 and other festival events, as well as complete details on the Festival of Comedy, visit www.LucyComedyFest.com.
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