Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)
Uh, has Joan Rivers always been this funny? Where the hell I have I been?
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a documentary that follows a year in the life of the Joan Rivers who at 76-years-old is taking any gig she can get her hands on in the hopes of keeping herself from financial ruin and maintaining her reputation as a comic legend while avoiding the dreaded realm of “has-been”. Yup, it’s all about Joan from her glory days with Johnny Carson to her winning stint on Celebrity Apprentice and all the ups and downs that come with making a living in the public eye, and strangely enough, it’s pretty compelling, too.
Let me start off by saying that if my good buddy Fred hadn’t been so in touch with his feminine side, I never would have given this movie a look, and ya’ know, that would have been fine by me. It’s not that I’ve ever had something against Joan Rivers, she just happens to be one of these celebrities that exists and I’ve been perfectly content with her falling into that category over the years. She was the reason I’ll never get plastic surgery, the closest I ever got to giving her a chance was during her days as the two-faced voice of the red carpet, and I knew that Carson thought quite highly of her before they had a falling out and never spoke again. I guess that’s some relatively intriguing material for a movie right there, but nevertheless, I didn’t really care to dig deeper.
But then this movie kicks off with her doing a stand-up routine about how her daughter’s a fucking idiot for turning down Playboy instead of telling them she’d go full-frontal for an extra 20 grand because when you’re 76 you’ll wake up to find your hoo-ha’s drooped so far that you’re wearing it as a slipper, and there I was laughing my ass off with the rest of the crowd. This is coming from someone who generally doesn’t go for jokes, who generally doesn’t go for stand-up either, but with that being said, those are two more reasons why I feel like a douche for writing her off.
And don’t be fooled by her age, Joan is a very dirty comic. Some of her bits make Bob Saget’s stuff look like Danny Tanner telling knock-knock jokes, she’s politically incorrect to a fault and it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when she gets into a shouting match with a heckler after a joke about Helen Keller’s baby years, and she’s only gotten better and edgier since she broke onto the scene. Her act might not be for everyone and you might have to be careful about the company you choose to see this with, but even though my ranting is probably butchering her unreal delivery and timing, Joan is unexpected and Joan is freakin’ hilarious.
But while the laughs come in hard from start to finish, that’s only part of what makes this doc worth watching.
I don’t know about you guys, but the idea of ever becoming a full-fledged celebrity is an idea I hope never comes to fruition. It’s just so weird and invasive, the only private life you have is the one you have to fight to protect, and I honestly have no effing idea how anyone can live like that. The spin that Joan’s life puts on this whole stigma of mine is that she’s the opposite of all that, or at least most of that. As a life-long workaholic with a healthy fear of opening up her monthly calendar and being blinded by the white reflection of the empty page, she’s desperate for the spotlight and will take on any gig to get it back, pay the bills, and remind people that Kathy Griffin ain’t got shit on her (my words, not hers).
But then there’s the part of her that’s terrified of rejection, of going up on stage and hearing a chorus of crickets chirp back, a part that’s a lot easier to sympathize with. She’s not a diva, she’d just rather not try in some regards than end up with egg on her face. I mean, come on, that would suck to hit the apex of your career in your 30s, hit a bump, have your husband commit suicide and then struggle for the next 30 some-odd years to gain back what you had even though your material is better than it ever was to begin with. It’s not sad in a “let’s have a pity party for Joan Rivers” kind of way, it’s more just sad to watch her try so hard for longer than anyone should have to at her age instead of simply kicking back in Del Boca Vista and playing shuffleboard with neighbors.
After seeing this and thinking back to Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian – a similar documentary about Seinfeld returning to his roots as a stand-up along with some less-than-necessary insights from up-and-coming and annoying-as-fuck comedian Orny Adams – it’s pretty surprising how interesting comedy can be aside from all the yuks. Directors Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern also do a swell job of capturing Joan’s sense of humor and vulnerability without letting the tone slip too far off into either end. It came close to being a Debbie Downer once or twice, but then I was howling again the very next second. Well done.
Folks, up until a couple days ago, the prospect of sitting through a documentary about Joan Rivers was about as appealing as getting Botoxed, but I’m pretty sure I liked this even more than my good buddy Fred did and I’d absolutely go see one her weekly live gigs she puts on in NYC. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was a minor revelation of sorts for me, and while it’s not on the same level as some of major revelations that 2010’s fine catalogue of documentaries had to provide, it sure was entertaining. In the words of an adoring fan she meets outside a comedy club, “You don’t get the respect you deserve!” And then in the words of Joan, “Damn right!”