Comedy is to make people laugh and deal with things.
“It’s the one business in the world where it’s total rejection,” asserts Joan Rivers, “In this business, you’re mugged your whole life.” It’s not a business she would have chosen for her daughter, she says, but it is the one in which Melissa grew up. “In the business, you’ve got to put yourself first, says Melissa. “I truly think it’s completely self-conscious with her.” And so it seems that she gets it, at least in her interview apart from her mother. She gets that her mother’s act is perpetual, and that what she says for audiences and maybe even what Melissa or anyone else “truly thinks” are all functions of the business.
The first point seems obvious: performers, especially in front of cameras, are on. Still, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work suggests that her fierce, relentless, endless self-making is noteworthy (or at least symptomatic in a way that’s worth thinking about). And indeed, as Rivers and her colleagues point out repeatedly here, she has been at this for a long, long time. At 76, she’s endured numerous difficulties and survived tragedies (her husband Edgar’s suicide being key to her life story, as lived and as remade into “material” for the business). She’s also developed a variety of relationships (some more pleasant than others) and has certainly engaged in public disclosures (her plastic surgeries, for instance).
The second point is where the movie gets more complicated. For even if all this self-performance is not the same as confession or even self-expression, even if it is an elaborate construction of a life as “the business,” Rivers has composed a fairly public record of her experiences. (She briefly describes making a TV movie about Edgar’s death, Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, calling it a form of “therapy,” and you’ll just have to take her word on that.) And so you may see A Piece of Work as a piece of that record, as well as yet another way to promote her career and get another gig.
As such, the film makes almost too much sense. “Joan will do anything,” her manager Larry Thompson observes. And again, “Joan will turn nothing down,” says her personal assistant of 15 years. Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s documentary, filmed over a year, makes that case plainly, following Rivers from psychobabble radio interview to podunk club (“Thirty-four years in the fucking business, and this is where you end up,” she tells her audience, holding up a chair that’s been taped together) to Celebrity Apprentice (with a mercifully brief allusion to the scrap with Annie Duke). It’s no secret that Rivers works for money (“I enjoy my creature comforts and I know I have to work for them,” she says, “I don’t want to live carefully”). But, she says, she also works for “the art.”
To that end, she reveals that she writes down and alphabetizes all her jokes on file cards (“I prepare like a crazy lady: everywhere you look, there are jokes”), she rehearses the play based on her life, Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress By a Life in Progress, a title and concept that redouble the film’s. She plays herself, refining the timing and the language with the help of director Sean Foley. The play makes it to London before she closes it, unwilling to take it to New York, where she anticipates mean reviews. “My acting is my one sacred thing in my life, and I won’t have anyone hurt me with that,” she explains. “It’s over. No one will ever take me seriously as an actress.”
Rivers’ passion here, and her distinction between categories of performances (“My career is an actress’s career and I play a comedian”), might indicate genuine belief. Or maybe it’s support for Melissa’s assessment, that her mom is ever “self-conscious,” performing to survive. Joan’s apparent frankness, after all, is part of her well-known “style,” her willingness to speak bluntly, to outrage and provoke. As Kathy Griffin puts it, “There’s a handful of women in modern history that have done this.” When Rivers started, the film recounts, she told jokes she wasn’t even allowed to say on TV, substituting “appendectomies” for “abortions.” “This is exactly what you should be talking about,” she insists, “The anger fuels the comedy.”
Rivers performs her anger assiduously. “She hears the clock ticking ever minute of every day,” Larry says. It’s likely that you know this already. But A Piece of Work is not about revelation or exposé. It is, instead, about Rivers’ business. That business is noisy, repetitive, and, as she says, “cruel.” Still, she maintains, “I don’t want to retire.” Being out of business would only be worse.