Sundance: Joan Rivers comes off as a stand-up heroine in the sharp and irresistible documentary 'Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work'

Here are a few of the fascinating things you learn about Joan Rivers in the rip-roaring documentary Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work. At 75, she works constantly, day after night after day, taking more or less any gig that’s offered — it doesn’t matter if it’s in a laundromat in Queens, if they’re paying, she’ll go. When you get inside her apartment, it’s shockingly ornate, with the towering ceilings, gilded walls, and stately royal-court furniture of an Upper East Side Versailles. Back in 1986, after years of acting as Johnny Carson’s regular guest host on The Tonight Show, she was offered her own late-night talk show by Fox — and, out of loyalty (because Joan, among other things, is very loyal), the first person she called to tell about it was Carson, who’d been her mentor and had been instrumental in fostering her career. Carson’s response? He slammed the phone down and never spoke another word to her for the rest of his life.

When Rivers, with her tirelessly blaring, paint-scrape voice, tells an anecdote like that one, she does it with a merciless appreciation for the comedy of her own misfortune. Yet there’s never a hint of self-pity; her ruthless mockingbird personality wouldn’t allow it. A Piece of Work follows Rivers around the country as she riffs, performs, worries, complains, and prepares her act with an index-card scrupulousness that belies its outrageously tossed-off, Jewish-firecracker spontaneity. What makes her a great stand-up artist is that she doesn’t labor to twist her observations into jokes. Her funniest, most caustic lines really are just what she thinks. She’s no relic. She’s the comedian as teller of uproariously toxic, gutbucket truths as surely as Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor ever were.

Directed by the team of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who have a background, surprisingly enough, in social-justice docs (like the superb 2006 The Trials of Darryl Hunt), A Piece of Work opens with extreme close-ups of Rivers’ completely unmade-up, surgically enhanced face receiving its daily coat of cosmetic varnish. It’s the film’s way of sating our curiosity about her china-doll-after-a-boxing-match looks. Sure enough, we quickly get used to being in such close proximity to Rivers’ slightly puffy features, and we begin to notice that for all the surgery, she really is ageless. Her energy is a thing to behold. It’s fueled by her awesome, hard-wired anger, and also by her obsessive passion for what she does. She acts as if she’s three gigs away from the gutter, but really, that’s just an excuse. Stand-up comedy is her life force.

As you watch Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work, you see and understand the insane courage it took for Rivers, as a woman, to blaze this trail. What’s inspiring is that while so many fearless comedians were consumed by their demons, Rivers is just the opposite. Letting her demons run wild is what saves her, every day. Her comedy prickles and stings because, as you get to know her, you can see that she is, above all, a compulsively frank and honest person. That’s the source of her biting vulgarity, and her majesty too.

Comments (23 total) Add your comment
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  • Michael H.

    Wow. I hope this gets a commercial release or at least makes it eventually to cable and DVD.

  • bunker

    I really want to see this.

  • TorontoTom

    I LOVE JOAN. Can’t wait to see it!(Does Annie Duke make a cameo in the documentary? hehehehe)

  • sas

    joan is a very talented woman and a legendary comedienne. she has really gone through a lot of hardship to make her place in a man’s business.

  • Lynny

    I always prefer her stand up to the “show” type stuff (red carpet, fashion police, etc.) But she is pretty amazing. Would love to see this.

  • PNK

    Sounds great! I love Joan Rivers, and do have solid memories of her pre-Carson days, her early gigs and all – a huge trailblazer!

  • Vince

    I’ve always loved and admired her. She truly blazed the way for female performers. Can’t wait to see this. She’s an ICON in every sense of the word.

  • Scan

    The title is certainly appropriate!

  • Soldier

    Continue to blaze your trail Joan! Keep up the good work.

  • madd

    I remember when I first saw Joan do actual comedy- not that crap E! stuff- and fell in love. She’s still absolutely hilarious, spunky, and in a weird way very real.

  • Drew

    The part about Johnny Carson’s reaction to her talk show is interesting. I just read about that in John Ortved’s “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History,” which definitely characterized it more as Joan setting up a talk show behind Johnny’s back and then telling him after the fact.

  • RJ

    I’d love to see it as long as her horrible daughter is not in it. I’ve always admired Joan, but not her talentless, coattail-riding daughter.

    • j j peters

      yah! Agree!

  • Angie

    Interesting. I’ve heard stories too about how Joan set up her whole Fox deal and got to the point where the show was basically planned out before telling Carson. Yet you never hear of this.

    Joan’s clip at the Aussie awards show can still make you cry laughing no matter how many times you view it.

  • Jon

    Owen, can you be anymore gullible believing that BS from Joan Rivers? It’s easy to tell such a lie about the infamous talk show now that everyone is basically dead. Joan Rivers is a hyper-sensitive drama queen who treats people like garbage. She was finally exposed on that joke of a show “Celebrity Apprentice.” She loves to dish it out, but reacts like a spoiled brat if you dare give it back. Her daughter is the exact same way — an irritating drama queen — only she doesn’t have Joan’s resume to back her up. I wouldn’t watch anything about this monster if you paid me.

  • Juliana

    Hey Owen, changing the subject: I wanted to know about “Mother and Child” and “Please Give”. Have you seen them?

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