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Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work Rages Against the Night

joanriversWhen the new documentary “Joan Rivers – A Piece Of Work” opens, just a portion of a face is shown on camera, at first without makeup, then with it. As the full-frontal Joan Rivers we all know emerged, I knew this film was going to be some ride.

Perhaps the most riveting monument in the entire opus was when Rivers admitted that “she lives in makeup, it’s the first thing I do in the morning.”

Certainly, her status as “the poster girl for plastic surgery” is discussed ad naseum; she claims that she fell in love with it and does float the theory that maybe she overdid it a bit. Really?

The documentary bares all of the slings and arrows she’s suffered as a female comic trying to make it in a male dominated business during the 1960s.

But what makes the story compelling is that so many career highs — and she had many — are played against some pretty deep lows.

From a darling of comedy king Johnny Carson — and possible heir apparent — to an outcast when she became a competitor with her own short-lived talk show on Fox, she saw her personal and financial life spiral downward.

She suffered an unimaginable tragedy with the the suicide of her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, in 1987.

But Rivers regained her career footing by working — any work she could find — even as many thought she was over the hill.

The biggest misconception about her is that she is all about the “Golden Past,” when her current act “is sharper than ever,” she told Reuters.

I can remember Rivers on “The Tonight Show” and The Ed Sullivan Show, portions of which are shown here. I have to add that watching Carson, if only for a few moments, immediately reminded me once again that he was indeed THE king of late-night TV.

Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson had a special relationship until their falling out.

Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson had a special relationship until their falling out.

Letterman is good; Leno just barely on the charts, but the great-Carsoni (sic) was the best ever!

Once Carson officially anointed Rivers as a “comer,” she readily admits her life changed; the gigs got better; the money higher and the overall respect from her peers (which every comedian wants and needs) got richer and richer.

When Fox approached her to host her first show on the then-fledging network, with her-then husband Edgar producing, she accepted. But she failed to call Carson beforehand.

When she did call him, he hung up instantly. She was never to speak to him again.

She was in effect blacklisted and suffered a crisis of confidence for many years. Everyone feared angering Carson.

And, her world changed overnight. She remarks that after that incident, she never appeared again on NBC until her recent run in “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which she won.

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg are top-notch documentarians. Their credits include the Darfur genocide, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” and the story of a man wrongly convicted of rape and murder, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt.”

Stern and Sundberg started filming Rivers on her 75th birthday and followed her for 14 months.

Joan Rivers and husband Edgar Rosenberg.

Joan Rivers and husband Edgar Rosenberg.

They were granted unprecedented access and they follow her from the hallowed halls in her Manhattan apartment (where she quips she does indeed live like Marie Antoinette!), to endless limo rides through her travels.

Also most interesting is story behind a play she wrote (“Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in progress”), debuting it first in Edinburgh, then England for three successful weeks.

The play ended in England (mostly due to dour reviews), frustrating Rivers’ dream of doing the show on Broadway.

I have to admit that from the beginning minutes of the film, it reminded me instantly of comedian Billy Crystal’s 1992 “Mr. Saturday Night.”

Notably, there’s a similar passage where both complain that they don’t have enough work and that their career is finished.

Rivers holds up calendars of past years, and there’s more work and notes there that you can read. Many of these comedians live only for their live shows; if there’s no work, then they believe they have failed.

There was one telling scene in the Crystal movie, when he tells his agent manager, “There goes my summer.”

That means there were no live shows booked. In Rivers’ epic, she holds up the blank pages of a monthly calendar, with no dates, no notes.

It’s always amazing to me how low-tech some of these careers are run. It’s not till much later in the film that we actually see a computer.

Her win in the Trump show re-invigorated her career; better dates, more money, opening for better acts (Don Rickles) and several new projects on the back burner.

Right before the Trump-win, she was officially roasted by Comedy Central, and even though she’s heard on film saying that “the money was very good,” it was almost disingenuous, as lower-level comics, including Brad Garrett Greg Giraldo, lambasted her.

Eviscerated might be the more correct word.

Funny thing is they all would not have been there if not for Rivers.

She also participated in a Kennedy Centers honors show for the late-George Carlin, who she knew.

She was somewhat against doing it, as she claims “it’s the last thing George would have wanted,” but, the exposure so good, she could not say no.

It’s telling that the jokes she wanted to do were met with some skepticism, but that’s our Joan.

She prevailed and was one of the best received; even among the likes of Gary Shandling, Jon Stewart and Denis Leary.

There’s a dark side to all these comedians; almost as if even when they’re winning, they’re getting ready to blow it all.

You have to root for Joan. She’s been successful in a cutthroat business for decades. She’s a pro, she knows it, and by the end you know it too. Check this out … exceptionally well done.

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