Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, or Post-Human, All Too Post-Human

Posted by Charles Reece, June 20, 2010 08:34pm | Post a Comment

The eyes of Joan Rivers.

I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that. -- Lloyd Dobler

There aren't too many comedians who were working Vegas back in the 60s who can make me laugh. Don Rickles is one and Joan Rivers the other. Rickles was featured in a decent documentary paying tribute to his talents a few years ago called Mr. Warmth (directed by John Landis); now it's Rivers' turn in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's A Piece of Work. The film makes much of her feminist importance in comedy, but how she doesn't get the recognition she deserves as a (non-gendered) writer or (according to Rivers herself) as an actress. As to the last claim, the film doesn't provide good evidence, namely some saccharine nonsense that became a TV movie about the effects of Rivers' husband's suicide on her and her coattail-riding daughter's relationship (Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story). Mostly, though, she's good at playing herself, or "Joan" -- the difference being imperceptible to an outsider. The opposite to Say Anything's Lloyd, Rivers will sell anything, appear in anything, use anything and do anything to get her name out there, including, most notoriously, having her face restructured piece by piece. And, during an interview in which she's defending her extensive use of plastic surgery, it becomes doubtful that there is even a line between her public and private personas. "Who's the real me?" she asks the interviewer. As she puts it, the one mountain she can't cross is age, so as an industry unto herself, selling one product, Joan, she does whatever needs to be done to stay current, to remain commercially desirable. The one thing she fears is a blank page on her calendar.

On the joy of sodomy: it allows her to do other things.

Those with a leftist slant might find Rivers' embodiment of the Protestant work ethic in a laissez-faire, product-placement-ready form immoral (I vaguely remember Janeane Garofolo making some remarks to that effect), but what makes her such a great comedian is that no one is a better critic of her choices in life than she is. Unfortunately, it's the subject of her comedy that's tended to overshadow her talent as a critic and writer. In some ways, the doc only reinforces this misprision, spending more time on Rivers' lame shilling for fame (e.g., Celebrity Apprentice) than on any attempt to situate her within the comedy pantheon. Other than the aforementioned Rickles, the only comedian the filmmakers get on camera to talk about her is Kathy Griffin, a lame imitation who's adopted the lifestyle without discernment. I'm no expert on comedy's history, but I'd instead place Rivers in the tradition of Richard Pryor and Doug Stanhope, the likes of whom combine the confessional (particularly personal failings) with ideo-sociological insight. For example, in a filmed onstage bit, she discusses how her daughter, Melissa, had proudly turned down $400,000 to appear topless in Playboy. Rivers points out how, at 75, she's currently having to perform in a some dirty little New York comedy club that's provided her with a taped up stool to sit on. She praises Melissa's decency, but then admonishes her for not asking for more to show everything. That's a precise analysis of what seeking fame and a life of luxury requires. This isn't the Joan that we get on TV.

Best movie poster of the year by Kellerhouse, Inc..

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