Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

| September 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

Back in 1993, I sat in the audience for one of Joan Rivers’ stand-up shows, seated way back in the nosebleed section – practically in the rafters – from my vantage point she was a tiny blur on the stage. Her voice, however, was not. It was loud, raspy, boisterous and unmistakably Joan. Her comedy was obscene, crude, vulgar, at times shocking but it was also unmercifully funny – you don’t survive in comedy for forty years by being mediocre.

Joan Rivers died this week leaving behind a legacy that was as funny as it was groundbreaking. She wasn’t dainty. She wasn’t a lady in any traditional sense. She was loud and had a big mouth, and part of the reason for that is that her career blossomed at a time when women typically didn’t do stand-up. Women in comedy mostly found themselves in situation comedies, mostly in the straight man role. In other words, she had a fight for it and she had to create a persona that would get everyone’s attention.

It is reasonable to assume that the best way to experience a comedian is to see them on stage. That is the best way to experience their talent. In order to get under their skin, it takes a special kind of lens. For Joan Rivers, it was an extraordinary 2010 documentary called Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a movie that not only exposed her talent but helps us understand who she was as a person. I didn’t know Joan Rivers except in a few bits on television now and then. I never really understood the person under the boisterousness until I saw this film.

The film followed one year in the life of this living legend who, at 75, showed no signs of slowing down. Through a face rendered almost immobile by innumerable trips to the plastic surgeon she reminded us that she spent her life dancing as fast as she can, as if she was fearful that she would vanish. At her rapid pace, she never lost her edge. This despite a career and a life that wasn’t always sunshine and roses. From failed marriages to banishment from “The Tonight Show”, to health problems, to her husband’s suicide, to a near-addiction to plastic surgery, you can imagine that a conglomeration of these experiences would bring anyone else to a nervous breakdown. Joan seemed to keep dancing in order to stay afloat.

What the movie reveals is a woman whose boisterous personality masked a great deal of insecurity. Early in the film she shows one of her date books from years past, filled with scheduled shows and many, many crossed-out appointments, some crowded onto the same day. “That’s happiness,” she says. Then she turns to a page full of empty dates and says seriously “That’s fear. If my book ever looked like this, it would mean that nobody wants me, that nobody loved me.” There is a painful truth in this scene, that somewhere buried under that brash personality was someone who needed her public life in an effort to feel needed.

Joan Rivers was a tireless worker, moving like a runaway train to remain at the top of her game even into her 80s. In the film, she goes through her overly decorated home where she shows us a joke file, set up like a library card system where she kept the jokes that popped into her head. She was determined to keep herself fresh and original. Early in the film we see one of her stand up routines. There she is, 75 and still loaded with boundless energy. There she is, crude and obscene, but there she is, full of energy and hysterically funny.

Rivers, who had been working in show business for more than four decades, established herself in the arena of stand-up comedy by discussing topics – tampons, sex, abortions – that women didn’t discuss even in private. She was working in an extremely male dominated arena, doing material that even most of the men backed away from. During a clip of one of her early trips to Johnny Carson’s show, the host suggests that men prefer intellectual women. “Oh please!” Joan says, “No man ever put his hand up a woman’s skirt looking for a library card!”

What I see in Joan Rivers, and what this documentary displays most honestly, is that comics are always needy. There’s some discomfort inside of them to always keep themselves new and different for fear that they will become a has-been or worse stale and dated. Joan Rivers was a woman racing to stay ahead of the train. She created the persona of a loud, overbearing Jewish woman who spoke her mind. It was a persona that never left her. She is fearless and determined that she would never give up. Late in her life, her personality didn’t change. What you could see was a woman who had lived a life that would have killed a lesser person. She was straightforward, and you got the idea that she had outlived and outfoxed all the games life plays. If life dealt her a bad hand, she didn’t falter. She just grabbed the mike, and kept doing the thing that she did best.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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