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"Can we tawk?"

Joan Rivers' signature line, inflected with her New York accent, says a lot about her comedy: She's confessional, daringly open about her personal life and scathingly honest.

"Can we talk?" is her way of telling her audience: It's just you and me here; we're in this together, and I'll say anything. Which may be the key to her long-running success.

Born Joan Molinsky in 1933, she grew up in Brooklyn. One of her first stage roles was during the late 1950s in a play opposite Barbra Streisand.

Rivers gained national attention on "The Tonight Show," appearing first with Jack Paar in the '60s, then becoming a regular guest host for Johnny Carson. When Rivers launched a late-night show for the Fox network in 1986, Carson became furious and ended their friendship.

Rivers' husband, Edgar Rosenberg, produced Rivers' late-night show, but when Fox fired him, Rivers quit. A few months later, in 1987, Rosenberg committed suicide.

Last year, a documentary titled "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival and received rave reviews.

Rivers is now filming the second season of a reality show with her daughter called "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" on the WEtv network. One episode features Joan barging into the bathroom where Melissa is taking a shower to try to convince her to pose nude for a magazine.

Rivers spoke to the Press Democrat while en route to an appearance near Niagara Falls. She performs Friday at the Uptown Theatre in Napa.

Q. I want to start with "Joan & Melissa." That was the most shocking shower scene since "Psycho." Did Melissa know that was coming?

A. No, we're trying to make it as much as possible absolute reality. There are too many reality shows that are so non-realistic these days. I knew what I was doing, but she had no idea in hell.

Q. Has she forgiven you for that?

A. Oh God yes. I'm her mother, you forgive your mother a lot.

Q. And you honestly wanted her to pose nude?

A. Absolutely. Melissa's got a beautiful body, and believe me it goes. She might as well do it now while she looks great.

Q. You make fun of yourself. Is that the way to making fun of everybody else?

A. Oh, no, but I do make fun of myself because I think I'm an ass — — . The key to my humor is that I tell the truth. I've always said onstage what I say to my very good friends in private. That's the whole key. My thing now is that blind people should not have apartments with views in New York; that's stupid.

Q. What's your plan for the Napa show?

A. I'll get onstage and we'll talk. I'll talk about everything that annoys me, and bothers me, that I find insane or funny, and I'll probably be very drunk because I'm wine-tasting that morning.

Q. Who are your comedic heroes?

A. The only one is Lenny Bruce. Genius, genius, genius. Broke the whole mold of what you're allowed to talk about. He changed comedy forever.

Q. You've been open about things that few people talk about: plastic surgery, your husband's suicide. Are you trying to give people the courage to discuss topics they wouldn't otherwise talk about?

A. I think if you bring something out in the public awareness, it's not terrible if you're all talking about it. And that's exactly why I talk about Edgar's suicide. If we talk about it, we can solve anything. Just put it on the table and tell the truth.

Q. "The Tonight Show" was your big break, but then you had a rift with Johnny.

A. I dared to do my own show — dared to leave the family. I think a lot of that was because I'm a woman and he never thought I would leave. I wrote him a letter, but he never made up with me.

Q. There was a play with Barbra Streisand ...

A. That was one of the first things I did. We played lesbians in a thing called "Driftwood." I've lost the program, which kills me because she was "Barbara" with all the a's in her name. And I was Joan Molinsky.

Q. There was a scene cut from your documentary where you say "F... you" to your late husband's picture.

A. Melissa was very upset about that (scene being included in the film). So I asked them to take it out. Anyone who has gone through suicide in their family, you are filled for the rest of your life with remorse, all the normal mourning feelings, all the loss and unhappiness. All the sadness is there, and also great anger. Great anger!

Q. So that doesn't ebb over time?

A. No. I'll look at a girl talking to her father and I'll think, 'Melissa didn't have that, you bastard.' The emotions are extraordinarily complicated.

Q. Does the road ever get tiresome for you?

A. Look at the last week: I was out in California to do "Fashion Police." I worked three days filming "Joan & Melissa." Then I had a meeting this morning with QVC to present our fall line of jewelry and clothing. Now I'm driving through the most gorgeous country, and I'm going to perform live tonight. It's a wonderful life, and it's never boring because it's never the same.

Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Follow him at michaelshapiro.net.

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