“The only time I feel comfortable is when I’m on stage.”
Say what you will about Joan Rivers, but she’s fucking funny. I first heard about this documentary on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Gross’ Joan Rivers interview was enthralling – thinking about it gives me a new appreciation for Rivers, her work, and just how funny she really is. She’s also one of the hardest working women in show business; working multiple bookings in a single day for the majority of the year. Most people see her nowadays on the E! Network, which is a shame since her red carpet antics are a small part of her repertoire. Her stand-up is witty, clever, and her ability to command a room is highly impressive. It’s possible I’m so sold on Ms. Rivers because I just watch the film a few minutes ago, but I’m not certain that’s true. I think it’s Gross’ interview that really sold me on her, erasing most of the negative press she’s accumulated from as far back as I can remember.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work begins with Joan at a low point, her calendar is largely empty and attempts at a one woman show (using the title of the documentary I just watched) in England receive middling fanfare. A biography about her beginnings, her ups and downs, and everything leading up to the time of the documentary intervenes throughout the narrative of the present. Joan’s comedic beginnings – starting with The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, who states, “You’re going to be a star,” – set the stage for explaining her present position: the butt end of plastic surgery jokes and a workaholic, never turning anything down. The film chronicles her marriage to late husband Edgar Rosenberg, who kills himself after the cancellation of her late night talk show on Fox; her disappointments with dramatic roles on stage (and the negative receptions in the press); her and daughter Melissa’s television film about Edgar’s death (Tears and Laughter), and so much more. Joan’s disappointment with her latest stage attempt depress her, even though she attempts denial, but she keeps moving forward, looking at each day as another chance, another job, another opportunity for legitimate recognition. This is a central theme throughout the film: Joan is always moving forward. Even though the past isn’t forgotten, she’s capable of compartmentalizing it; in essence, she has the resolve of a steadfast trooper. It’s the Horatio Alger myth in action.
The film then moves to her role on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice (which she wins) and her roast on Comedy Central, a job she takes, “for the money.” The insults various comedians hurl at Joan are harsh, but that’s the point of a roast. Even so, they get to her, but they don’t faze her; she’s keeps moving along, doing stand-up in a variety of places – some large, some small, but each room laughs. Her newer stand-up material is fresh, offensive, and her delivery is perfect. For a 75 year old woman, her comedy is contemporary, indicating she still has a feel for the currents of today’s world. There are moments when her stand-up material reminds me of Bill Hicks. While the philosophical and political leanings of Hicks’ work, especially his later routines, are much more insightful and full of vitriol, Rivers’ offerings contain a similar indignation. Rivers’ is one that comes with age, whereas Hicks’ work is full of dismay for the contradictions and blunders of his fellow citizens to take action for the world around them. Rivers’ message isn’t as forward, instead employing observations about her experiences not only as an entertainer who’s the punch line for many jokes but also a woman in an industry where men dominate, but her study of humanity is just as sharp. It’s definitely not out of touch or something solely for Vegas.
By the end of the documentary Joan is back on top again, or at least as far up as she can go. Her calendar is overflowing with bookings and things are looking up. She reminds the audience at this point to enjoy it while it lasts, since it’ll be gone tomorrow. Considering the ups and downs of her career, this is intelligent advice. In Rivers’ interview with Gross she discusses how she’s had it all and lost it all, selling off possessions and then reclaiming some again when things are up. Although she’s at the top at the film’s conclusion, which includes a spot at a George Carlin tribute (awarding him the Mark Twain award posthumously), she’s still working around the clock. Kathy Griffin calls Rivers a “rock star,” claiming the equivalent of an Oscar for comedians is, “still working,” after all these years. If that’s the case, Rivers’ documentary indicates she’s deserving of a feature length film documenting a year of her life and all the accolades the success of the film brings her.
According to Wikipedia (which is where everybody should get their information, including college students writing research papers) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work grossed a little over $2 million dollars theatrically so far. The version I watched was on pay-per-view and indicated the film is still in theaters; I’m sure it’ll bring in a few more bucks before it fades into relative anonymity in a few years. Hopefully people will see this for a while, bringing Rivers to a new audience and defining her differently for those only familiar with the negative associations common in the media.
What I enjoyed the most about this documentary, aside from her stand-up, is the optimism Rivers’ exudes throughout the film. Even when things are down she keeps charging on, working ceaselessly and always reaching for the brass ring. When she has it she keeps climbing, trying to find another. While her lifestyle is a bit lavish – a trait she refuses to apologize for – she definitely works for it. I’m not entirely convinced she strives for success because of the monetary rewards alone but because it’s what excites her and keeps her alive. She claims early in the film that the “smell of the theater,” is responsible for her entry into show business and although I’m sometimes incapable of seeing a career in modern mainstream media as a venture solely for artistic credibility, her performance in the documentary conveys sincerity. Whether she’s just pulling our leg, trying to get the audience’s sympathy is questionable, but her body of work, especially her stand-up, is good enough for me to push this thought aside and just enjoy Rivers for what she gives us.
Here is the trailer