Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Oscar Bait--Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Cross-posted on

There were a lot of lists of the Top Ten Films of 2010 but one film was conspicuously absent--Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Maybe because it was a documentary. It’s 85 minutes long and it flies by in a blizzard of pleasure.

I knew she was funny but I didn’t know how funny. And obscene. And did I say hilarious? She’s beautiful but she’ll kill me for saying that. At 75 she exhausted me going over her daily routine with her assistant. Book signings, a new play, “A Work In Progress” opening in Edinburgh, Comedy Central Roast, honoring George Carlin at the Kennedy Center for the Mark Twain Award, working the 4,000-seat Foxwood Theater and almost every night working out her material doing stand-up in a little club.

Watch her parry with an offended heckler in Wisconsin. She gets to the core of comedy, of why it matters so much to her and us—if we didn’t laugh, where would we be?

Two events involving Johnny Carson were instrumental in her life. To you youngsters out there who say, “Who?” when I mention Carson, he was the undisputed king of late-night talk as host of the Tonight Show. He could make a comedian’s career just by smiling at him on the couch next to him. The first time she worked the show, he told her “You’re going to be a star”. Her career skyrocketed. The other time was when she was offered her own talk show on Fox in 1986 going up against Johnny. When she called to tell him, he hung up on her and never talked to her again.

In fact, she was persona non grata at NBC until she did the Donald’s “Celebrity Apprentice”, a highlight of the movie dropped in the lap of the filmmakers.

It was brave of her to allow the two filmmakers, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, to follow her around, but she’s pragmatic, tough and protective of her sensitivity to rejection. Her first love was acting. Though her play was a smash in Edinburgh but received lukewarm reviews in London, she stopped work on it immediately because she wasn’t going to get hurt the way she was by the New York critics again.

Great lines tossed off—she introduces her staff, “Staff, I’m lonely. Who’s going to f**k me tonight?” Decades before shock comics she joked about abortion, “She’s had 14 appendectomies (you know what I mean), flying back and forth to Puerto Rico, and she’s walking down the aisle in white? Puleez!” And the bit about anal sex, priceless.

She’ll hate me for saying this, but she is an icon and an inspiration. She killed me with her mouth and mind going a mile a minute.

The filmmaking is intimate but in your face and there’s not an ounce of fat on it. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’ll blast you out of your seat like a shot of Tabasco.

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