Joan Rivers volleys back and forth between caricature and idol in our culture. We simultaneously praise her for the work she has done for women in show business and then reject her. In Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a 2010 documentary following a year in the 75-year-old comedian’s life, it is clear that Joan Rivers has the same problem with herself.
The documentary, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, shows a woman working hard to stay relevant in a changing world, and for the most part succeeding. But after every successful night in a club, or after winning Celebrity Apprentice, the comedian has a self-depricating quip to show her insecurity. Constantly funny and quick witted, Joan Rivers can be even more racy than some of today’s comedians.
She acknowledges her powerful career as a comedy idol who made it possible for today’s comedians like Sarah Silverman to make jokes about rape and the Holocaust. But she never seems happy with what she has done.
At first, I thought the directors played some unfair jokes on their subject. The opening scene is a close up of Joan Rivers’ eyes as thick makeup covers red varicose veins. But these are not jokes she wouldn’t tell about herself.
We are living in a new golden age of comedy. More and more movies are coming out trying to tell the stories behind the jokes that make us laugh. As interesting a character as Joan Rivers makes, the movie itself feels repetitive.
Several scenes reminded me of similar movies. Many might be surprised to find themselves laughing a Joan Rivers’ jokes, but they probably won’t learn much they can’t find somewhere else.