Today is the birthday of the great comedienne Joan Rivers (b. 1933). I want to take the occasion to recommend the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a peek behind the curtains at this fascinating and complex woman.
It’s a revealing movie, but I feel there are several points of dishonesty and omission. At age 75 (when they made this) Rivers was still as funny and famous as ever, and had been so for nearly 50 years. Needing a story to tell, the film-makers strike an underdog pose. Here Joan is, they tell us, with a paucity of bookings so great that she has to do a one-woman show in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But I can’t help but notice that while she prepares for this show, she is living in a posh, opulent suite of rooms fit for a millionairess, assisted by a staff and entourage of underlings. Cue the violins! And though some of her contemporary gigs take her back to the level of her Greenwich Village coffee house origins, she also continues to be a staple of national television. If you announce that she will be on tv, millions of devoted fans will still tune in, as they always have.
Furthermore, as a show biz historian, I think there should be more nuance in talk about the “women in comedy” struggle. The discussion needs to be qualified, but it almost never is. Rivers is a pioneer, but not in something so broad as “comedy”. If I were to list the women who were successful (even more successful than men) performing “comedy” in theatre, vaudeville, burlesque, radio, television and motion pictures prior to Rivers it would look like the phone book of a medium sized town. What Rivers pioneered was being a woman in modern, post-burlesque/ night club style stand-up comedy, an aggressive field which was, and remains, dominated by sexist dickheads. She is to be applauded for the strength it took her to weather that tempest tossed sea. But I also note that her years of struggle were short; she began appearing on national television regularly in her early 30s.
But there is poignance here, and irony. She’s an old woman now. She’s tired. Most women of her age and background are sunning themselves on the beach in Florida. Rivers’ lifestyle demands travel, sleeplessness, stress, and physical exertion. For someone who has created an onstage armor that seems tough and impervious, in real life she seems vulnerable. The elephant in the room is her plastic surgery, which reveals much about her insecurities. A highly intelligent woman, a gifted comedy writer who satirizes the vanity ond foibles of celebrities, she herself has fallen prey to the con of lookism. Instead of the handsome, distinguished visage that might have graced her natural appearance, she now resembles Jocelyn Wildenstein. She also seems very much alone. There is no current man in her life (at least at the time they made the movie); she seems like what she is: a widow. Her husband and manager (and frequent butt of her jokes) Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide in the wake of her Fox late night talk show failure. The sadness of these twin sucker punches seems to hang over her, and probably always will. But we also see a portrait of a woman who has carried on despite all that, and undoubtedly will do so as long as she has strength in her body. Learn more about the film at http://joanriversapieceofwork.com/