I’m devastated by Joan Rivers passing. She’s such a giant in her industry and consummate entertainer who’s been on television in one way or another since I began watching TV. Whether it was her guest-hosting The Tonight Show as Johnny Carson’s fill-in, the host of her own ill-fated late night talk show on FOX, center square on Hollywood Squares, all the way up to her anchoring E’s Fashion Police. Rivers left us with a staggering amount of work, most of it available online. But there’s perhaps no more better look at the legacy she leaves behind than the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which I watched again over the weekend on Netflix.
2010 was a difficult year for Rivers, according to the documentary. As she goes through her calendar Rivers notes that she has no big gigs coming up. “You wanna see fear?” she asks picking up a calendar. “That’s fear,” she says, pointing to an empty page. We follow RIvers as she puts together a show to debut in London’s West End, Diary of a Semi Legend. When that doesn’t work out, Rivers goes back to New York, and accepts offers for a Comedy Central Roast and appearing on Celebrity Apprentice with her daughter, Melissa. In between, we see Rivers on the road, taking every gig she can get. She continuously hones her act, appearing weekly at a small club in New York every Wednesday her schedule permits. We also get glimpses of her legendary card catalog of jokes, delivering Thanksgiving meals for her charity God’s Love We Deliver, and the loyal staff who run her lavish New York penthouse.
It’s an excellent documentary, and watching it I’m in awe of her work ethic. It’s so inspiring to see Rivers, then 77, work tirelessly to stay busy. Driven by a fear of becoming irrelevant, she never stops. Even when she has nothing coming up or the critics hate her show, she sucks it up and keeps plugging away. She would literally accept anything, even stuff she didn’t want to do. We follow Rivers to an appearance at a rinky-dink casino in Wisconsin (“Why?” Rivers asks the camera. “Because they’re paying me.”) and watch her negotiate a 3-day cruise ship appearance. The documentary doesn’t shy away from her displeasure at having to endure a Comedy Central Roast or be a Celebrity Apprentice contestant, which she ultimately wins, turning her career around one last time (she would go on to launch Fashion Police and Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best on Lifetime).
As a fan of Rivers, it’s hard to accept that she’s gone. Seeing clips from her days on The Tonight Show, and even FOX’s The Late Show, reminded me why I love watching her. She’s an irreverent comedy genius and nothing escaped her keen sense of humor: Mother Theresa, AIDS, 9/11, abortion, her husband’s suicide. Nothing was off limits, and she saved her most cutting remarks for herself. It’s too bad that most people will associate her with Fashion Police now, surrounded by cackling jackass George Kotsiopoulis, Angelina-wannabe Guiliana Rancic and famous offspring Kelly Osbourne. I would often watch the show frustrated by the continuous stream of watered-down, mostly lame jokes Joan would spout, written for her by scab writers. On more than one occasion I tweeted @joan_rivers that the jokes were awful, and she could do better. Heidi Abromowitz, that slut, would no doubt agree.
Happily there’s her youtube show, In Bed with Joan (the episode with Bianca Del Rio is hilarious), several The Late Show clips, her hilarious appearances on Carson and several podcast appearances including Nerdist and How Was Your Week (she reflects on her reluctance to make the documentary but did it as a favor, and how it changed people’s perceptions of her), even her critically-panned directorial debut Rabbit Test starring Billy Crystal. Julie Klausner, HWYW host, wrote for Rivers many times and remembers her fondly in a terrific piece for Vulture, and there have been tributes from Conan O’brien, David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon, who just last year welcomed her back to The Tonight Show after being banned by Carson for over 30 years. She’s a comedy icon who’ll be sorely missed.
Screen cap via Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Available on Netflix.