Show Business: Barbs for the Queen (and Others)

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Bitchy Joan Rivers is the funniest woman in America

"If I say anything vicious, just add afterward the words: 'She laughed.' " So, to grant the lady her request and, at the same time, to avoid repeating those two words several dozen times, please regard most of the punctuation marks that follow as shorthand symbols for "Joan Rivers laughed."

Assume then that she laughs when she makes a joke about Queen Elizabeth's taste in clothes, something like, "I put a doily under the Kitty Litter. She was very impressed. She took it home for a hat." Supply giggles also when she takes on Nancy Reagan: "She's a great lady. She never swears. She told me to go and reproduce myself." And realize as well that Rivers is smiling when she tosses darts at her favorite target, Elizabeth Taylor: "She pierced her ears and gravy came out" or "Mosquitos see her and scream 'Buffet!' " or "She stands in front of a microwave oven and yells 'Hurry!' "

Be certain too that the corners of her mouth are elevated into a grin when Joan Rivers talks about Joan Rivers: "Right now I'm the meanest bitch in America."

Well, given the competition, probably not, but it is safe to say that her outrageous, bitchy brand of humor has earned her the title of the funniest woman in the country. When she is host of the Tonight show, which she now is more than anyone else except Johnny Carson, she sometimes outdraws the man himself in the ratings. She is one of the few stars who can still pack houses in a depressed Las Vegas; her twelve-city tour in February was an instant sellout; and last week Geffen Records released her first album in years, What Becomes a Semi Legend Most? Next week she will be the host of NBC's Saturday Night Live, and on April 18 she will take over the Carson show again for a week. "I think the country is ready for me," she says. "People have come around to me, which is terrific, because, God knows, I haven't changed."

Except, perhaps, to become more secure onstage and a little more insecure off. This morning, as she talks about herself in her house in Beverly Hills, gobbling a rainbow selection of vitamin pills and munching an unpalatable-looking dish of diet food, she is more jittery than usual and speaks even faster, as unlikely as that may sound. In a few hours she will be a guest on the Tonight show, and that is even harder on her nerves than being the host. "Johnny gave her her break," explains her husband, Edgar Rosenberg. "And she always wants to shine for him."

Rivers always wants to shine, and except for the time she spends every day with her daughter, Melissa, 14, there is scarcely a second when she is not polishing her material. All over her house, elegantly decorated with French and English antiques, there are pads stashed away and pens and pencils inside pretty enameled boxes. When she is not working on jokes, she is thinking up TV and movie scripts. Though it received bad-to-middling reviews five years ago, Rabbit Test, her film comedy about the first man to become pregnant, is still returning profits. Now she is preparing to make a movie about television, Situation Comedy, which should blister the networks the way her fat jokes do Elizabeth Taylor.

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