A Piece of Work: Joan RiversBy Robert Vaughan
July 12, 2010
I have to admit, I was not really a Joan fan. In fact, her “can we talk” shrillness used to make my shoulders tense when I would hear it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for brash, uncouth, in-your-face behavior. As a former New Yorker, even her accent didn’t get under my skin. I think it was a quiet desperation that I intoned, something underneath her poking fun at celebrities, bristling at housewives, and most of all, her self-deferential slant that gave me pause. I just really never tuned into her Late Show debacle, or her Joan Rivers Show on television, though it ran for five years. And then, just when I might have given her more credit, she started the heinous mother-daughter alliance for which she has become known since the 1990s: the red carpet pre-award hosts for cable channels like E! Entertainment and TV Guide Channel (yes, imagine that, even they have a channel!). There has also been several guest spots on TV shows I don’t watch, like Nip/Tuck, QVC Shopping Network, and Celebrity Apprentice in which her daughter, Melissa, appeared in the same season and lost. Joan went on to win. During all this time, Joan has had some, shall we say, adjustments, in the surgical arena. Whether you endorse this practice or not, it’s difficult not to judge someone that you only know through a TV image or in a magazine, and they appear so completely altered. Like a puppet, a shard of one’s former self.
Taking this all into consideration, I went to see the Joan Rivers movie on my recent June trip to New York. It was playing at the Malvern Theater, a great venue on Long Island. There were maybe five people in the audience. As I watched this documentary style movie unfold, many details of Joan’s life came into light of which I had no former knowledge. The falling out with her industry mentor Johnny Carson in 1986 over her move from the Tonight Show to a soon-to-launch Fox TV Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (he would never speak to her again). I recalled reading something about her husband Edgar Rosenberg’s suicide in 1987, but never saw what toll that took on Joan and their sole progeny, Melissa. Joan felt his demise was impacted by the fact that Fox wanted her to fire Rosenberg, and when she refused, they were both let go. Imagine, firing your husband from his job. Or losing your husband in such a horrible manner, eaten up by the same machine that feeds your family. That fuels your career.
More than anything, I saw the drive that Joan Rivers has, as a person, and as an actress. There is one shot in which she reveals a catalogue full of her jokes on cards. She whips out one or two from thousands of choices and reads it. And it’s funny. She’s a riot. But the irony here is that she wants to be taken seriously, wants to be treated as a serious performer. Twice she has had plays mounted about her own life. The first play did well until it hit Broadway, where it was panned by critics. Her last play, which is covered fairly extensively in the movie, revealed how vulnerable any actor is to the system. How skewed the relationship between performer and critic really is. I was amazed by her work ethic, and thought that for someone who is nearly 80 years old, she works harder than most Americans. Certainly harder than me.
I’m still unsure if I’m a fan of Joan Rivers. I love comedy though, and to see these talented young performers like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, the comedians of my generation, one has to wonder if they’d be as successful without Joan. Iconic, yes. Trailblazer, sure. She doesn’t want to be seen as that, though. She’d still rather be headlining any of their stand-up routines. Or in an Oscar role. Any day of the week.
I thought the movie was genius.
Sad, hysterical, frightening and real.
I couldn’t agree more. The movie really changed not only my opinion of Joan, but changed me. Made me question aspects of my own life. One can only hope modern cinema can bring about self- inquisition. Thanks for commenting.
You capture a brief glimpse of an important and, dare I say, seminal performer. Joan always came across to me me as a deeply caring individual. It is hard for folks outside of the “new york” personality and the “jewishness” that infuses her comedy, born of pain. In the movie she claims that she has to be angry and that anger fuels her. It is a much more empowering position than depression and hopelessness. You also see Joan get angry at AIDS and other conditions and give the same dedication to charitable causes as she does to her career. I’m glad you gave us this review, and now recognize people like Joan who have inspired new greats like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, and Sarah Silverman.
Your points are salient and so forthright about Joan- she does believe strongly in certain causes and uses her celebrity for far more than superficial repartee. I was also intrigued by her reveal in the movie about anger being the motivation that fuels her. And yet, as an outsider myself, I found that point relatable to a certain degree. I am glad you read the article and found a fount of brilliant information to share.
I had no idea that there was a movie about Joan Rivers.
This reads like a very favorable review, Robert. I feel compelled to check it out, though I have to admit Joan gives me the heebies.
What makes Joan so. . . creepy?
Shawn, all I can say is I hope you see the movie. As someone who more than likely would have skipped, maybe done the Netflix version, I am so glad I saw it. Maybe you will feel differently about Joan after doing so.
Wow. This was super fascinating.
I watched The Joan Rivers Show when I was a kid. I remember when Michelle Pfeiffer beat out Sean Young for the role of Cat Woman in whichever Batman movie that was. I remember, because Joan Rivers had Sean Young on as a guest and SY came out in a cat suit and it was really pathetic – so pathetic that at 12 or 14 years old I felt really sorry for her. And Joan Rivers was mortified. I don’t remember anything she said, I just remember seeing this spectacle on TV and JR’s very sincere look of what…the…fuck…
Anyway, great read. Thanks.
Thanks for posting, your memory sketch is lovely! And thanks for reading, too. I’m new at these shenanigans (TNB), so it feels nice just to know it’s been read.
How bizarre that I remembered Joan Rivers’ reaction wrong. I couldn’t find the exact video, but I found this:
There’s a soundless clip near the end. Maybe I project my own intense feeling of WTF onto Joan. Memory – so untrustworthy.
Gloria, yes, memory can be untrustworthy for any of us. But I wouldn’t worry about it. After all, as I said about your previous post, I enjoyed your recap of the former show, and the clip with Sean Young in a cat suit that stood out for you. It worked for me and made me wonder what else I missed from not ever watching Joan’s show. And hey- you were 12-14. C’mon, give yourself a break!
Ah, I didn’t feel all wounded or anything. I was just disappointed. My memory of the event was so much better than what actually happened. As is also the case with memory.
Hey, memory is a very important tool in the arsenal of humanity.
It allows us to write history in such a way that concepts like “nobility” can actually exist.
It allows victors to be true, and vanquished to be villains.
History would be so drab and boring otherwise. Imagine the Bible, if Moses had merely consulted his tide chart at the Red Sea. Or if Jesus had simply purchased the adulteress for five shekels instead of giving his “he who is without sin should cast the first stone” speech.
Imagine if Alexander the Great was actually LGBT (oh, he was!) or The Mexican-American war was actually fought on false pretenses? (oops)
Thanks for jumping in here Dwoz with your illuminations on memory, and some of your fine examples also. Did you happen to read the Joan River piece I wonder?
As a matter of fact, I did!
It definitely reinforced my own beliefs about the entertainment industry, and how what we see as an audience isn’t necessarily what actually exists when the cameras are dark.
It’s easy to miss the fact that people like Joan Rivers are hard-core professionals who “grind it hard” and expend seemingly ceaseless energy on their craft, and the business of their craft.
They play a persona or role, but it’s hard to separate themselves from that role and keep their personal selves safely intact.
I’m not sure I would go to a film about her, but I’d jump at a chance to see her on stage.
Or, were you looking for a critique of the writing itself? 🙂
I have no clue what I am looking for, most of the time. I am thrilled that you read the story, my first here at TNB. I guess that, plus your commentary about the entertainment industry are all fulfilling for me. Just to know I am not writing in vain, or that the story has something to latch onto, or warrants comments, is plenty. So, thanks!
Ok, writer’s critique:
The casual and easy paragraphs belie the amount of research involved, for just this short piece.
I had to forcibly stop myself from Googling Rosenberg. So your task of baiting the hook was accomplished.
Congratulations by the way, on making the TNB roster! kudos and welcome. Looking forward to your next piece.
A hearty thanks for your insights once again, dwoz (and a cool moniker, too). I was invited to join TNB a month ago, but when Brad sent me the package to get the ball rolling, I have to admit, I nearly crapped. For someone who can barely manage e-mail and Facebook, it took me a month, and urged by another friend with an invite, to get my proverbial you-know-what together. And here I am, to stay. Again, I am encouraged by your gratuitous words.
I can’t say that I am a fan of Joan Rivers, but I do admire her drive and determination and success. It is so hard to survive in showbiz – it really is an industry that eats its own.
Also, the times I have seen her as a guest on chat shows she has always been surprisingly funny and engaging.
I’m glad to hear about the documentary – I will be sure to check it out.
And welcome to TNB! Nice to have you here..
It seems we have similar feelings about Joan, and having been in that showbiz industry for a period in my life, I have to say, I whole-heartedly agree. It’s so nice to have the warm welcome, and thanks for your support.
I think you’re right about Joan. The essence of this is, it seems to me, is that she deserves more respect–as a performer, a TV survivor and a person. I agree.
Thanks for reading and posting your comments. My wish is that Joan finds whatever respect she wants inside of herself, easier said than done, of course. Just a difficult task for so many artists who feel like “they like me, they really like me” is more important than I like me.
Hey, Robert! Welcome aboard.
I saw “Piece of Work” a few weeks ago in Seattle and the theater was packed. I’m glad you enjoyed it, too.
Not to quibble, but re your last point, she made it clear repeatedly in the film she very much enjoys being viewed as someone who opened doors for younger comics, it’s just she believes she’s *still* opening doors and isn’t a relic. Underscoring another of your points, I also found it fascinating and surprising she perceives herself as an actress and wants the audience to see her as one, also.
A bit flummoxed that you didn’t previously view her husband’s suicide as a defining marker in her life, as it certainly would be in anyone’s.
Thanks for your warm welcome to TNB. I’ve been moved by the number of responses I have had to this piece. I like your insights and appreciate your comments. I’m not a quibbler, would rather take in every comment and admire the writing in response. So thanks again for your voice.
Welcome, Robert! So cool to see you hooked up with TNB!
You know, when I was a little girl, I LOVED Joan Rivers. I once chased her around the Water Tower shopping mall in Chicago with my best girlfriend, and stalked her into an expensive shoe store to beg for her autograph. I thought it was just amazing that you could get famous and make money doing and saying the kinds of things she did. She was a huge trailblazer in my mind–the comedic equivalent, let’s say, of the character Joyce Davenport on Hill Street Blues, who kept her last name and was a feminist and career woman, but also sexy. Joan seemed, in other words, to be able to make it on her own terms, and as a young girl this opened new possibilities in my mind.
Unfortunately, I have kind of a bad taste in my mouth about her now, as she’s evolved over the ensuing decades. Like a character in an action movie series (think Indiana Jones or Darth Vader), she seems–by the third film–to have become a parody of herself, and to have become–instead of a ballsy chick–sort of desperate, exaggerated, and petty. I’ve watched with a kind of horror while she morphed into what seems to be a satire of a drag queen . . . without any of the artistic elegance of an ACTUAL drag queen. It’s seemed to me a sad illustration in what can happen to women in “celebrity” culture as they age. For every Helen Miren or Susan Sarandon, you can get a Joan Rivers . . . or the creepy, over-the-top consumerism and tacky faux-glam of the Sex and the City women, who used to be attractive, stylish and sexy but now seem like Liberace (did I spell that right?) This makes me sad. Also, celebrity culture and the dissection of it just doesn’t interest me. The few times I’ve observed her lately, Rivers’ material itself seems obsessed with the banal, without genuine substance. (Albeit I am not an expert on her current schtick, since I’ve avoided her of late, so I may be wrong about that.)
In any case, I didn’t even know there was a film about her. I’m interested in seeing it now. I do continue to see her personal story as more interesting and relevant than, I guess, her actual COMEDY now seems to me. I agree that there is pain, anger, and care about real causes behind the persona that’s ended up defining her “act.”
Wowsah! I love your insights, details about your personal journey, your relationship to Joan. I like that you expressed your sentiments about how Joan made a very distinct impression on you as a young girl, and your linking her to Joyce Davenport. Those cultural icons who defined our generation in terms of independent women, and were people to look up to, admire and possibly even become. This is, of course, the stuff that dreams are made of, isn’t it?
Her de-evolving path has appeared to have all of the trappings of the worse aspects of Hollywood or possibly “celebrity.” As you worded it so eloquently: desperate, exaggerated, and petty. I love that you termed the drag experience as artistic elegance. Wonderful! In any case, unlike you, I am fascinated by the obsessive aspect of our modern culture with “celebrity.” I think Joan is a product, like so many other performers, of keeping herself in the spotlight, even if we cringe.
Do see the movie. I’d love to know what you think, and hear your thoughts.
Thanks for the warm initiation to TNB.
Welcome Robert! Nice to see you on TNB. Good piece. I too am undecided about Joan. Sometimes she makes me laugh. Sometimes she just irritates me. I don’t know what to do with her, but now I’ll have to check out this documentary.
Thanks for the warm welcome. Glad to be here on TNB. I hope you check this new film about her out. Would love to hear your thoughts if that happens. Or if it doesn’t. Thanks for your read and post.
I was just talking about this movie over the weekend with a friend. He wanted to see it, and I was less than ambivalent. You elucidated my reservations about Joan Rivers perfectly in the first paragraph. I’ll hasten that another aspect of her public persona that rubs me the wrong way is the way she skewers people at Awards shows for what she believes to be fashion missteps. It’s always seemed a bit hypocritical to me for her to condemn the sartorial choices of her peers, when her own miscalculations are so obvious.
But you reminded me that the public persona is just part of the whole package and that certainly to have arrived at a position of prominence, she’s certainly got a lot of other qualities worth exploring.
I don’t see myself going to the theater to see this, but on your review above, I think I’ll add this to my Netflix queue.
Thanks and welcome aboard!
Thanks for your read, and your eloquent response. I hope your view of the movie sheds new light on this topic. Would love to hear your observations once you have had the opportunity to see the film. Thanks for the warm welcome to TNB.
Great article! I love Joan…I know what you mean about that voice but she broke the ice for all women.
She Imogene Coca and the like. Thanks for your article!
Thanks for your comments about the Joan River piece. Who knew this would grow into so much commentary? I am thrilled that you read the article and agree that Joan did indeed break the ice for so many others to follow.
Thanks for this thoughtful and candid response to the Rivers documentary. This has really inspired me to see the movie. Twice I’ve been near the theater where it’s playing and have been tempted. The third time will be the charm!
I’m so happy that you might see her movie. It is not necessarily the first movie on everyone’s list to see (it wasn’t mine). But if you have read the commentary at the TNB site, I was moved to change my opinion of her, or at the very least to re-evaluate where my judgements were coming from. I hope you like it!
I didn’t know there was a Joan Rivers movie either – I know little about her, to tell the truth. She’s not as big a deal over here as she is in the States, I guess. I’ll have to see if I can track down the movie and come back to you with my impressions as a blank slate.
In the meantime, welcome to TNB, Robert!
Thanks for the welcome and I’d enjoy hearing what your impressions are if you do, indeed, see the Joan Rivers movie. Or even if you don’t. What is your country of origin? Are you a Brit? When you say “over here” do you mean Europe or Asia or Australia? So many options, so little time! Ha!
Have a great day, Simon, and thanks for reading and commenting!
I am Australian, sir. And I mean that country when I say ‘over here’.
Thanks! You have a great day too!
I love Australia, had the good fortune of visiting in 1994 (far too long ago) and did a six city tour: Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Cairns. Then I vacationed on Hinchenbrook Island. Boy was that ever remote (or at least then it was). Entire beaches occupied by just me! Not quite the experience you get on Jones Beach, Long Island! I selected it because it was supposedly a backpacker’s paradise. Indeed it was that and more. I want to get back to Australia (insert sigh!)
Great article and I was also clueless that Joan Rivers has a movie out. Then again, I am clueless about most things. I liked the writing style, breezy but chock full of interesting tidbits about her career and life. Nice job.
Thanks for reading and your nice compliments. This was my first article for TNB and hopefully, the first of many. Stop back and enjoy the site! Lots of great writing here.
I was really into Joan Rivers when I was a little girl. She seemed larger than life, louder than most other famous women, and witty, so quick and funny. Just a whip, and especially in the age before Carol Burnett and then the 1970s sit-com comediennes came about, Joan was alone. I was riveted by her.
Then she became a parody of what I thought she was: harsh, transformed by massive amount of plastic surgeries, and seemed less funny whenever I would see her in the public eye. Rather pathetic, and as human nature would have it, I turned away. Couldn’t bear to watch, painful as it was.
Now, with this movie, I see that you have found hope again, to see Joan as the person I once admired. I will see the movie, too; it’s playing right in my neighborhood in the Village. Thanks for your article. It’s honest, bold and filled with interesting details.
Thanks for the memories and do see the movie about Joan’s life and career. Gave me fresh insights into her as a person and a professional.
I love Joan. Plain and simple. Women would not be the same without her. I…am not the same.
So well expressed in so few words. Thanks!
Robert, Hey! I was glad to find this. I’ve been pretty out of touch with Joan Rivers over the last decade and a half, but she’s an unforgettable part of American life and somebody I remember more from when I was a kid. I was curious about the documentary. This makes me want to see it.
Hi Lisa Rae,
Thanks for stopping by, reading and commenting. I’m glad you found some interest in seeing the movie from reading the article. This is my entry into the world at TNB, so I feel lucky to be here.
You’re right about something: the only thing we know about performers are their public personas, so that’s how we judge them, and that doesn’t make us wrong, necessarily.
thanks Robert for a great article!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Laurel. I appreciate your insights and what we agree about. And so nice of you to call this a “great article!” I’m blushing now.
vanity leads to more plastic surgery procedures. people are becoming more conscious about their appearance ;~”
Joan has been around for quite a while. Seems like a nice lady. Thanks for the article.