Friday, August 20, 2010


I was never crazy about Joan Rivers (and usually didn't find her that funny). She always struck me as the kind of loudmouth who gets in your face and then tries way to hard to keep your attention.

But I read some good reviews of this recent documentary about her and something drew me to it. I knew I wanted to see it on the big screen and so the other night I joined a couple of friends and went to our local movie theater to catch it.

And I have to admit, after seeing JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK, I realize Rivers is a genuinely unique person with a genuinely unique story that's both tragic and impressive.

The film focuses mainly on one year in her life that fortunately—for the filmmakers (Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg) and for the audience—turns out to have the natural arc of a very good story. But it also flashes back to earlier experiences in her life where some of her early TV appearances reminded me that when she first came on the scene she was seen as exceptionally attractive for a woman working as a comedian.

Phyllis Diller personified the groundbreaking aspect of female comedians then, a woman who used what was perceived by her and audiences as her unattractiveness as the spur for her self-deprecating humor. (I head her roast a celebrity friend at a birthday party not long before I left Hollywood, Diller must have been in her eighties, or so it seemed, at the time and I never heard anyone be so foul and funny until I saw JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK.)

I was familiar as a boy and young man with Moms Mabley, a foulmouthed African-American comedian back in those days who no one I knew in "the white world" had any idea about, but who I discovered through my "black" friends along with the also foulmouthed Red Foxx before his later crossover success made him a TV star. Both he and Mabley were a revelation to me growing up with Jack Benny and Abbot and Costello and Martin and Lewis as the norm for comedians, with the only female one I knew then being the marvelously original Gracie Allen.

But Rivers had this uniquely husky voice and New York accent and an obviously bright and quick wit as well as being pretty attractive. So at first she seemed incredibly appealing. Which I had forgotten, until I saw this documentary, because within a short period of time after her first appearances on TV she seemed to become someone else, intent on basing her humor on barbs I often found mean-spirited or exclusive (more capable of being understood by women then men at that time for instance).

And then she got even meaner, while at the same time becoming one of the more notorious plastic surgery addicts making her come across as both insecure and freakish as well as even more mean toward the people she ridiculed in her routine.

But while watching this flick I laughed out loud at a lot of jokes I probably would not have found funny if I were at home watching it on HBO. But in the intimacy of a darkened theater, very much like the intimacy of a darkened comedy club, I not only found her outrageously funny, but also sympathetic.

I don't share her taste or her perspective or her experience or what seems to be many of her values or fears or projections. But I do share a common humanity that includes dealing with setbacks and disappointments and struggling to overcome them and find a purpose in tragic events, or at least the will to go on. And this woman has done that in some very strange and often not admirable ways, but also in exemplary and sometimes touching ways.

At the end of the film she's more of an enigma than ever in many ways, but at least she's entertaining, even when she makes you cringe, because she also, at least for me in this flick, often made me laugh, surprisingly.


Anonymous said...

Joan is a gemini, which explains a lot.

Lally said...

Didn't know that and now that you mention it, it does explain some things. But other aspects of her personality and drive remain a mystery, sometimes intriguing and sometimes frightening.

Jerome said...

Did they cover her stint as a talk show host? From what I recall she was really good. Her quick wit was able to keep the talk rolling. I think it was a domestic squabble (her husband didn't get along with the producer) rather than ratings that ended this part of her career. Anyone know the story on this?

Lally said...

Jerome, that was part of the tragedy. She was chosen by Johnny Carson to be his permanent guest host, which everyone assumed meant she would succeed him when he retired. But she was more ambitious than that. So when Fox offered her her own late night talk show in competition with Carson, she accepted, with her husband as producer. Carson never spoke to her again and partly because her husband did such a bad job the show bombed and he killed himself, leaving her, according to her, with no money. Her rebound from that (partly by making a movie in which she and her daughter reenacted that whole experience, an amazingly bold and original bit of performance art in my opinion) is pretty impressive.
Hey man, if you're gonna catch this flick I highly recommend you see it in a theater on a big screen, so much more engrossing, in every way.

Anonymous said...

you missed MISSED

Belle Barth: