A Piece of Work

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I was two-years-old when Joan Rivers premiered her late night talk show. Needless to say, I knew nothing about her in my earlier years. My first knowledge of Joan Rivers was probably her stint covering the red carpet for E! — long after she was heralded as a comedic “semi-legend” who paved the way for female comics the way Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley did for her.

I knew Joan Rivers was funny, but I was introduced to her at the point in her life where she had already become a bit of caricature. Her face, which has been surgically altered numerous times, has nearly become such a pervasive punchline that it often overshadows any joke that comes out of her mouth.

She looks like an overbotoxed Muppet. Or Lil’ Kim’s grandmother. Whichever you feel is a worse description, go with it. Regardless, it’s distracting. It makes it easy to hear her brand of humor and quickly lash back out at her.

A good example of this is Joan Rivers’ recent Twitter war with Lindsay Lohan and her girlfriend whatever she is now, Samantha Ronson. Joan made jokes (that were funny) and what did Lindsay and her friend do: Make jokes about her age and face.

Joan’s age and face in recent years have become bigger stories to people of my generation than her comedic legacy. As in: “How dare she talk about anyone when she’s a walking plastic surgery don’t?”It’s too bad not enough young people know that daring quality is what produced such a lengthy career.

Here’s to hoping that will change as more attention is brought to her moving documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

I went to see this yesterday after having my typical blase moment where I agonized over my own career — where I want to go, how might I get there, and whose dick I need to suck or vagina I need tickling in order to get their faster.

Well, not so much that last part, although you never know what desperation can spawn.

Desperate would be a good way to describe Joan’s eagerness to do anything to keep herself in the limelight. Another would be simply “smart.”

The documentary starts off with Joan in a small, beat up comedy club not worthy of an entertainer of her stature. Yet, she’s there telling jokes, making people laugh, and being every bit as funny as she seemed to be at the beginning of her career.

Her rationale for selecting the seedier spots to work is made clear once she lifts up an appointment book and opens it up to a blank page.

As she puts it: “That’s fear. If my book ever looked like this, it would mean that nobody wants me, that everything I ever tried to do in life didn’t work, nobody cared and I’ve been totally forgotten.”

Her unwavering need to be successful (and sustain her expensive lifestyle) makes her willing to shill anything, perform anywhere, and do whatever it takes in order to maintain relevancy.

At a time when certain “celebrities” earn their status by way of everything but something involving talent, it’s refreshing to see someone remind you of just how hard it used to be to become famous and successful and how much harder it still is to stay that way.

Outside of highlighting her fantastic work ethic, A Piece of Work also allows us to see what makes this woman tick both personally and professionally.

She was candid about what makes her shtick. “It comes from anger. If I didn’t have the anger I couldn’t do comedy.”

Here, here.

Comedy doesn’t always settle said such emotions, however. It’s something Joan’s daughter, Melissa, reminds viewers when she describes her mother, along with most comics, as innately insecure.

You get that once Joan tackles her surgery. Sure, she says she uses it to fight ageism in Hollywood, but once you hear her reveal that she’s never had a man tell her she was beautiful you can’t help but feel bad for her.

For those wondering, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg did not pay lip service to Joan Rivers throughout the film.

Though they do show Joan is not the meanest old lady on the black by way of her own words and actions – like taking her grandson, Cooper, out on Thanksgiving to delivery food to those severely ill – they’re not asking you to like her.

What the film does do is give you reason to respect her. And after nearly 90 minutes of seeing how hard she works, how much she wants to succeed, and how bad she still wants to make people laugh after decades in the business in such an open way, how can you not?

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