The jokes, the surgeries and the age are not the problem.

A Piece of Work

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Let's say right off the bat that "A Piece of Work" is a fast paced, skillfully crafted documentary. No negatives that I can think of could be called up for this piece of work by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. The problem, and it's nearly insurmountable, is their subject: Joan Rivers.

            Making clever use of film clips from her past, Stern and Sundberg show her life trajectory from stand-up comic to permanent stand-in for Johnny Carson. At a peak moment in that success, Fox offered Rivers her own show to be produced by her husband Edgar Rosenberg. Carson, so instrumental in her success, saw it as betrayal and never forgave her. It is to this day a knife in her gut. The Fox stint went up in flames and Rivers' career never fully recovered until she won the reality TV brass ring on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice.

                In her own view, Rivers is an actress playing the role of a stand-up comedian. From the '50s to the present she made her name as a shrill, foul mouthed comic trading on thoughts and images thought in earlier decades to be unspeakable on TV. As the shock escalated, so did the audience reaction. What will she say next? That was the teaser that drew them in. Some of the jokes are funny, but they often come wrapped in verbal cruelty that targets specific people. Still, Rivers comes close to the core of comedy when a man in the audience puts her down for a Helen Keller joke, "You wouldn't think it's funny if you had a deaf child." Yes she would, and she makes a quick, angry stand for humor as a tool that helps us deal with tough times.

            Her stock jokes often dwell on her repeated plastic surgeries and her age - she turned 75 during this filming. The jokes, the surgeries, and the age are not the problem. The problem is that Rivers is a one trick pony. She has spent 50 years designing a carapace that is a loud and shameless scream for approval. A loyal staff works on "The Career" while Rivers stares angrily at the empty spaces on her calendar. She repeatedly insists that she is a "a funny person," that she is happy only when on stage. But when she is up there, she is bitter about her husband's suicide, even made a movie about it, and about her catalog of rejections, all of which she feels are undeserved.

            You will have to decide for yourself whether Joan Rivers belongs on stage or whether she is a caricature of the early boundary stretcher. In today's culture, raw shock doesn't go very far. It has nothing to do with one tires of Elaine Stritch. It's that this pony's one old trick has faded. Even if you admire her determination, there is something grotesque and very sad in self-delusion.


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