I’m talking to a clown. No matter what she says, the expression stays the same. Eyes permanently surprised, skin pulled tightly back over the cheekbones to create the same expression. The temptation is to lift her hair up to see if there's a clothes peg attached to her neck, holding all the spare skin that a 69 year-old widow should have. But any sag was disposed of years ago. Joan Rivers doesn't look 69, but then she doesn't look any age. You may as well guess the age of a Dalek. "I'm a huge fan of plastic surgery. What's there not to be a fan of? You want your nose pretty? Get your nose pretty. What's the big deal? I just think that if you don't like your teeth, you go to a dentist and get them fixed. Same goes for your nose."
Maybe she has point. Despite her recent nips and tucks, Rivers says she's been recognised whenever she's left The Ritz to go walkabout. No mean feat this, given that she's been virtually invisible here since the 80s, when she seemed to be on permanent chat show rotation. In the States, she had been a star for over 20 years, both live and on TV, ever since she married Johnny Carson's prducer Edgar Rosenberg. But Rivers was left penniless when Rosenberg took a valium overdose and left all his money to their daughter Melissa. To her credit, she turned a hopeless situation into a moneyspinning one. With no live or TV work on offer, she hit Vegas with a routine based in part around the loveless marriage that preceded her husband's suicide. Then she wrote a couple of best-selling self-help books and, um… launched her own jewellery range.
"Do you like these?" she says fingering three not-real-amber-obviously necklaces, "All these would cost a total of £50. I’ll be coming into QVC in Britain at the end of April." Like a street trader with a one-off job-lot of real Chanel, she adds, "Off the record, it's great stuff."
Her talent, of course, isn't for selling jewellery. That she does so is because of her ability, like all the best comics, to sell herself. After her dramatic fall, Rivers even took to lecturing on bereavement. "I really enjoyed that," she says, "In fact, I still do it. The thing is, there isn't that much to what I teach. All I say is move forward. Never stop. I don't wanna hear, "Oh, I should stay in the house a little bit longer." I'm not being cute here but if you're already wearing shoes and you're travelling towards your house, you're already better than two thirds of the world. Anyone can change their life. I really believe that."
Could you say that to a homeless person?
"Well, it sounds stupid to say pull yourself up and do something, but I don't care. There's no room for pride in any of our lives. You do what you do to survive. I don't wanna hear, "It's not in my job description." I don't wanna hear, "It's five o'clock I'm going home now" You do what you have to do!"
Where Joan Rivers is concerned, you find yourself playing God's advocate. Aren't some people are just stronger than others?
"That's genetics. That's what your mother ate when she was pregnant."
As you may have guessed at this point, Rivers didn't get to where she is thanks to the kindness of others. In her memoirs she noted that her physician father Meyer Molinsky seemed committed to helping the sick – but he was hardly ever at home. Her first marriage (to a Jewish furniture store heir) was an attempt to please her parents, and lasted barely a year. Her humour is cruel because life has been cruel.
But she's not quite the bitch she'd have you believe. She famously phoned Liz Taylor to ask her if she minded all the fat jokes: 'This was around her real chunkareenie time. If she'd told me to,' claims Rivers, 'I would have stopped. But she said, "It doesn't get me where I hurt.’"
Is everything funny?
Can 9/11 be funny?
"Oh, I think so," she says, lining up one she prepared earlier, 'I'm from New York and you can't laugh about… but I do. It's such a wound. It's like an amputation but it's also a bond. I was trying to figure out who really did it. Who could have profited from the whole thing? I've whittled it down to Paula Zahn. She's the girl from CNN, and she certainly sprang to national prominence. I think we should look a little more closely at where she was that morning. She was camera ready when they called on her. I have my own theories."
Sometimes you watch the news and it's like everyone in America has become a Republican.
"Well we should! I think we were insane letting it happen. America should get more conservative. It's ridiculous. I'm sorry the Taliban prisoners have blankets! They're getting cookies! How many prisoners of war get cookies?
They're probably not as nice as the cookies in your New York apartment.
"I bet they are! Because we're stoopid! I bet they have Sara Lee!"
Should you attend any of her forthcoming London shows, you probably won't notice this from the auditorium – but close up, Rivers' company is slightly unsettling. She talks as though she's trying not to make an invisible mud pack crack – another effect of the surgery. Isn't there a danger with all this plastic surgery, that you might cross the Michael Jackson line? You don't know which operation is going to stop making you look human.
"Well I think you have to know."
But how? Who's going to tell you? Your surgeon?
"Well, I think Michael Jackson is just wacko. Any man that lives in Neverland and wears a ski mask in July…' And so, as is her habit whenever things get a little close, it's back into the routine.’ I mean, we have to talk here…"
But then isn't that what clowns do?