Here are a few of the fascinating things you learn about Joan Rivers in the rip-roaring documentary Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work. At 75, she works constantly, day after night after day, taking more or less any gig that’s offered – it doesn’t matter if it’s in a laundromat in Queens, if they’re paying, she’ll go. When you get inside her apartment, it’s shockingly ornate, with the towering ceilings, gilded walls, and stately royal-court furniture of an Upper East Side Versailles. Back in 1986, after years of acting as Johnny Carson’s regular guest host on The Tonight Show, she was offered her own late-night talk show by Fox – and, out of loyalty (because Joan, among other things, is very loyal), the first person she called to tell about it was Carson, who’d been her mentor and had been instrumental in fostering her career. Carson’s response? He slammed the phone down and never spoke another word to her for the rest of his life.
When Rivers, with her tirelessly blaring, paint-scrape voice, tells an anecdote like that one, she does it with a merciless appreciation for the comedy of her own misfortune. Yet there’s never a hint of self-pity; her ruthless mockingbird personality wouldn’t allow it. A Piece of Work follows Rivers around the country as she riffs, performs, worries, complains, and prepares her act with an index-card scrupulousness that belies its outrageously tossed-off, Jewish-firecracker spontaneity. What makes her a great stand-up artist is that she doesn’t labor to twist her observations into jokes. Her funniest, most caustic lines really are just what she thinks. She’s no relic. She’s the comedian as teller of uproariously toxic, gutbucket truths as surely as Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor ever were.
Directed by the team of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who have a background, surprisingly enough, in social-justice docs (like the superb 2006 The Trials of Darryl Hunt), A Piece of Work opens with extreme close-ups of Rivers’ completely unmade-up, surgically enhanced face receiving its daily coat of cosmetic varnish. It’s the film’s way of sating our curiosity about her china-doll-after-a-boxing-match looks. Sure enough, we quickly get used to being in such close proximity to Rivers’ slightly puffy features, and we begin to notice that for all the surgery, she really is ageless. Her energy is a thing to behold. It’s fueled by her awesome, hard-wired anger, and also by her obsessive passion for what she does. She acts as if she’s three gigs away from the gutter, but really, that’s just an excuse. Stand-up comedy is her life force.
As you watch Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work, you see and understand the insane courage it took for Rivers, as a woman, to blaze this trail. What’s inspiring is that while so many fearless comedians were consumed by their demons, Rivers is just the opposite. Letting her demons run wild is what saves her, every day. Her comedy prickles and stings because, as you get to know her, you can see that she is, above all, a compulsively frank and honest person. That’s the source of her biting vulgarity, and her majesty too.