Joan Rivers is an American icon. This 77-year-old comic has been telling jokes for over four decades, and while many may argue that she’s got a filthy mouth, and that repeated plastic surgeries to her face have turned her into something of a joke herself, what cannot be denied is that she’s got an indefatigable spirit, she’s hard to ignore, and she’s very very funny.
This consistently fascinating documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, opens with the entertainer looking at her blank calendar and moaning the fact that she’s virtually out of work. We watch as she plots her comeback with TV appearances and radio interviews, a play in Edinburgh, stand-up acts at small clubs across America, participation in a season of the reality show Celebrity Apprentice with Donald Trump, and just about anything that will get her face time on television and will pay for the lavish Manhattan apartment she shares with her two dogs and her support staff. At one point she even jokes that she’s willing to knock off her own teeth if she could get a dentures commercial out of it…and you get the feeling she might not be joking. Joan Rivers will do anything, just about anything, to keep going.
This film is as much a survival story as it is a behind-the-scenes peek at one of America’s most controversial entertainers. It reveals Rivers to be a vulnerable and insecure artist who’s craving respect, who’s still hurting from the scathing criticism she received for her first play in 1972, and for whom nothing is too sacred to make a joke on.
In one of the film’s best scenes Rivers, who has traveled to a Wisconsin club to perform stand-up, cracks a Helen Keller joke and is almost immediately interrupted by someone in the audience who says he doesn’t think it’s funny because he has a deaf son. Attacking him with the ferocity of a tiger, Rivers tells him she has a deaf mother herself, and that this is what comedy is about. “Comedy is to make people laugh at everything. And to deal with it,” she bellows.
There are other moments that point to her softer side. Driving with her grandson to deliver meals to the needy on Thanksgiving; or the tearful scene in which she finally accepts that her long-time manager isn’t coming back, and in him she’s lost her only connect to the good ol’ days. Or the revelation that she sends the children of her staff to private schools.
If you were unfamiliar with Joan Rivers’ comedy, this film is a good reminder of the blazing speed of her wit – they don’t call her America’s fastest mouth for nothing. But what this film succeeds in doing over everything else, is presenting the human side of a misunderstood legend.