Posted on: Feb 12, 2010By John Wenzel
Whether it's criticizing her brash personality, her plastic-surgery looks or her omnipresence in popular culture, hunting this talk-show veteran and pioneering stand-up has become something of a national sport.
But here's one of the secrets to Rivers' longevity: Not only can she absorb the potshots, which glance off her harmlessly, she can also give as good as she gets.
"I got started in (entertainment) just because I wanted to be an actress and I was funny and made them laugh," Rivers, 76, said over the phone from her New York office. "I knew if you could make a person laugh, they would remember you. I was always funny with all the secretaries and agents I got in to see during auditions, and then somebody said, 'You could make a living being funny.' "
And that's exactly what she's done ever since her breakthrough on "The Tonight Show" more than four decades ago. A passionate stage performer, Rivers will return to Denver for a series of Comedy Works South shows tonight through Saturday.
Between her reality-TV shows and business concerns (QVC-approved makeup and jewelry lines), she has never stopped touring her stand-up act and one-woman shows around the English-speaking world.
"My act is constantly changing and it's an automatic thing, because what I say now I never would have said before - but that's always the case," said Rivers, who in the 1960s and '70s set the template for countless female stand-ups, including Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and Lisa Lampanelli.
"Comedy is much stronger and much harder-edged now because we're going through many more different times than in the '60s or '70s. We're in the great recession and people can't get jobs and are very nervous. We have ads that say, 'Go bankrupt. It's OK!' One in four houses can't pay their mortgage. We're in a war and we don't know when it's going to end. These are rough times."
But lest you think Rivers' target audience remembers her more for her unmatched run of "Tonight Show" guest-hosting gigs, consider this: Rivers is as popular and visible as ever in 2010.
A varied swath of Hollywood funny people roasted her last fall on Comedy Central. Last year she trounced the competition on NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice 2" and is already going into production on the second season of her TV Land show "How'd You Get So Rich?" (Says Rivers: "The fun is going out and grabbing people on the street and saying 'How'd you get so rich?' And they tell you! A guy in a Bentley actually said, 'My boss invented Botox!'")
Also consider that the candid Rivers documentary "A Piece of Work" netted raves and sparked a bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival last month.
The film also demonstrated Rivers' ability to draw young people to her shows.
"If you can relate to a 20- year-old college audience, that tells you you're at the top of your game," Rivers said. "I love that. I don't like to walk out and see gray hairs and heavy glasses because I see that with my friends. I just came from dinner with that!"
Rivers' innate comedic sensibilities are awesome to behold, according to Comedy Works owner Wende Curtis.
"The last time she was here, she was the most amazing pro," Curtis said. "It was unbelievable just how she could flip a switch and turn it on. I think that stuff comes from a gazillion years of experience."
And despite her novel-length list of accomplishments - including overcoming personal trials (the suicide of her second husband in 1987, bulimia), her Emmy-winning talk shows and her 10 books (sample title: "Men Are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs: A Woman's Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery") - Rivers still has unfinished business.
"What haven't I done yet that I'd still like to do?" she asked herself. "Everything. I'd love to go back to Broadway. I've never been in a good movie or a regular on a series, which is quite surprising. There are so many things I just love about the business. I don't care what aspect of it. I just love it."
Stand-up comedy. Comedy Works South, 5345 Landmark Place, Greenwood Village. Today-Saturday. 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. today; 6:30 p.m. Saturday. $55. 720-274-6800 and comedyworks.com