This portrait by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg of the reigning queen of comedy at 75 is a fascinating mix of Joan Rivers doing what she does best (edgy, frequently self-deprecating stand-up) and—at times—a truly pathetic look at how relentlessly driven for the roar of the crowd and critical success the irascible Grande dame of zingers was.
Following in the ground-breaking footsteps of Moms Mabley (cross-reference below) and Phyllis Diller, Rivers can’t abide a “white [appointment] book” (her gigs and appearances), knowing that in the fickle world of entertainment “she needs some heat” to keep her persona in the public eye. She has no desire to retire gracefully declaiming, “I don’t want to live well” and hopes to go on harvesting laughs forever (“I’d like to beat them all”—e.g., centenarian George Burns).
And so she will literally play anywhere from dingy small clubs to agreeing to be “roasted” at the Kennedy Center (marvellously—never coincidentally—the dressing room picture of another rebel with a cause, Leonard Bernstein, is caught in frame with Rivers; at another juncture—in the comedian’s extra-regal digs—a volume of bad boy/funny man Noel Coward silently reinforces the narrative from its perch in the library). The comedy clips range from tears-in-your-eyes howlers (how a woman can multitask during anal sex), to not ready for public consumption (an outlandish name play between two First Ladies) through to a think-on-your-feet turnaround of a crowd when an audience member becomes an unrepentant heckler after a Helen Keller joke cools down the conservative patrons as fast as you can say, “in bad taste.”
The personal and professional relationships of Rivers’ long career are also in the spotlight. Johnny Carson almost singlehandedly launched the young performer’s road to fame and fortune by singing her praises early on; years later when his ever-frequent guest host had the audacity to jump networks (NBC to Fox) and become a late night competitor, Carson’s “How dare she?” rage manifested itself in permeant silence and a very cold shoulder from the peacock network. No gracious “good luck” when two egos the size of Mount Everest collide with comedic fiefdoms at stake.
Sadly, hubby Edgar Rosenberg (the butt of countless Rivers’ gags)—as producer of The Late Show with Joan Rivers—couldn’t find the magic and the show was cancelled soon after it began. Just a few months later, Rosenberg cancelled himself, committing suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room. Daughter Melissa opted to follow in her mother’s footsteps culminating—in the film—when the mother-daughter duo compete against one another on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. Joan won (2009) while Melissa’s early departure was anything but graceful: much Freudian fodder there.
Also during the course of the shooting, longtime friend and business partner Billy Sammeth vanished, leaving Rivers more isolated than ever, with no one to jointly recall long-ago events.
For all of her achievements, Rivers—constantly employing her trademark nervous laugh, that can now be understood as not just a device to keep performances rolling—the indefatigable one-woman institution still craves good reviews from the media: most especially for her self-written theatre productions. How very revealing to hear her state that she is “more actor than comedian; I play a comedian.” (And how at one Rivers’ desire for acclaim is with Don Rickles’—who also appears briefly—signature comment: “I can’t get no respect.”)
Dying this past September, Rivers failed in her longevity goal, but has left a legacy of unforgettable comedy that was never afraid to piss people off even as they howled till their sides split. One can only imagine the wealth of humour she could have plumbed from the Ghomeshi scandal: both—and for vastly different reasons—are hard acts to follow. JWR