Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Directed by Ricki Stern
and Anne Sundberg


A  new documentary called Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is being hailed as a remarkable look at show business life, at the sacrifices and pains and difficulties and distortions that pursuing a career of fame and fortune in the spotlight requires. Perhaps you didn’t know, but it’s really very hard to have to take lots of private planes to Indian casinos to make hundreds of thousands of dollars, or be the subject of a Comedy Central “roast” for which, we are told, “the money is extraordinary.”

The only proper response to this movie’s effort to derive sympathy for Joan Rivers’s supposedly difficult life is: Oh, go soak your head. So she’s had troubles, even big troubles. Big deal. Everyone has troubles. She’s world-famous, filthy rich, doing what she loves and driven to do it, and at 75, has her health and memory and the stamina of someone half her age. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg attempt to create an image of deep pathos because Rivers is so busy she has to check in at a hotel at 3 o’clock in the morning and ask not to be awakened before 6 A.M. She doesn’t like her Indian casino hotel room, to which she has flown on a private jet from Palm Springs. Boo-hoo.

What Joan Rivers does have is what makes this movie very much worth seeing: an astonishing, raging, unstoppable comic gift. She is bitterly, furiously, compulsively, and continuously funny. Rivers has thousands and thousands of jokes she herself has written on 3 x 5 file cards lining a wall in her palatial residence on 64th Street just east of Fifth Avenue. But she doesn’t need them; the movie shows her riffing conversationally from morning until night, practically unable to speak a sentence that doesn’t work somehow as a joke. This is so much the case that when the camera catches her saying something in earnest you keep waiting in vain for the vicious punch line to undercut the sentiment.

Comedians are not necessarily naturally funny people. Steve Martin’s remarkable memoir, Born Standing Up, is an account of a man so intelligent that he was able to break comedy down into its constituent parts and learn how to perform it despite being entirely bereft of an innate sense of humor. It was said of Jack Benny, one of the great comedians, that he couldn’t tell a joke to save his life; his best friend George Burns, who was a straight man until his surprising old-age career after the age of 80, would spend his days at the Hillcrest Country Club making everyone around him laugh until they could barely breathe.

Rivers herself wanted to be an actress and spent some time at Second City as an improviser and sketch performer. But it was only when she surrendered to her God-given ability to slam home a kicker in her late twenties that she found her true calling. The startling aggression she showed, first toward herself as a young woman and then toward celebrities as she found her voice in middle age, was something astounding to behold from this pretty little slip of a thing who talked about herself as though she were a hideous hag.

It turns out we didn’t know the half of it. In A Piece of Work, we get a side of Rivers that only those who have seen her perform in person know: a comic as blue as the voters of the District of Columbia, whose lines and asides are so foul it’s nearly impossible even to hint at them. The movie opens with Rivers on stage revealing how her daughter Melissa sought her approval for refusing to appear topless in Playboy for $400,000. Rivers, who will say just about anything, then says the last and most disgusting thing you would expect to hear—and I have to say, it’s so incredibly transgressive that it’s hilarious.

The movie is structured as a year in Rivers’s life, moving from a career trough to a career high point. The structure is nonsense; there’s no indication, aside from a scene in which she shows an empty calendar, that she’s going begging for work. She’s clearly very busy, and her agent and manager both talk about how she will do anything and go anywhere and perform in front of anyone and advertise anything, including devices for male sexual enhancement. And it’s a little hard to believe that being the “winner” of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice is more of a triumph for her than being the subject of the Comedy Central roast, which happens in the middle of the movie.

The yearlong arc of A Piece of Work is another example of how manipulative and false the nominally more “real” documentary form can be. Documentaries need plots just as any movie does, but real lives don’t have plots, not even Joan Rivers’s life, and the imposition of one is as false as any melodramatic twist on Desperate Housewives. The reason this movie made it into theaters, and is getting wildly enthusiastic reviews, and might even be something you will go and see if you can tolerate the obscenity and the profanity, is simple: It’s side-splitting.

It’s also a little boring in spots, but that’s to be expected. Movies with highs as intense as the ones created when Rivers goes into one of her rants need to give their viewers a little down time until Old Faithful goes off again.


John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.