Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg have made a name for themselves making documentaries (The Trials of Daryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback, The End of America) that could be considered works of activism, in which charismatic victims of and witnesses to injustice offer evidence intended to raise not just the viewer's consciousness, but their ire. The pair thus did not seem like the obvious choice to tell the story of Joan Molinsky Rosenberg, the nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn better known as foul-mouthed comedienne/plastic surgery addict Joan Rivers.
Amazingly, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work might be best understood as one of a piece with Stern and Sundberg's activist work. If the entertainment industry ain't exactly Darfur, it still hasn't been an easy road for Rivers, whose boundary-breaking comic creativity will likely be listed low in her obituary, to make room for discussion of her obsession with reinvention. Stern and Sundberg sympathize with the star's plight, and provide an excellent platform for her gut-busting politically incorrect comedy to speak for itself.
Though her much-altered visage is relevant enough to Rivers' story that Stern and Sundberg begin their film with footage of their subject having her face put on, they persuade that Rivers is more addicted to work than to the needle and knife. She keeps massive archives of every joke she's ever written, an alphabetized card catalog with one drawer spanning all the material from "Cooking" to "Tony Danza," another starting with "New York" and ending with "No Self-worth." She points to an appointment book page representing an overbooked day and says, "That's happiness."
Following Rivers for a year and documenting the ups, the downs, a theatrical bomb and a reality show victory, Stern and Sundberg make the case that although Rivers broke down barriers for future generations of female comediennes, she's never been able to relax and enjoy her success without worrying about the next gig. Answering questions after today's screening (the film got polite applause, but her entrance got a standing ovation), Rivers was quick to demonstrate just how hard she continually works to stay current. "I'm Twittering today from Sundance," she said. "I've been preparing all these little jokes for a month and a half."
Her ambition and no-bullshit drive to stay employed may have even led indirectly to the current late night talk show crisis. In 1986, with NBC prevaricating on re-upping her contract as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show, Rivers took an offer from FOX to host her own late night show. When she called Johnny Carson before the news broke to break it to him personally, he hung up on her. According to Rivers, who teared up talking about her broken relationship with Carson ("It kills me to this day!") she was subsequently blacklisted from NBC late night for life. So how does she feel about the current Conan O'Brien/Jay Leno clusterfuck?
"I'm delighted. I'm blackballed from NBC. They can go fuck themselves. If they had used me, their numbers would have been higher. Every show I go on, I get great numbers." Rivers paused for applause. "I'm not bitter."
Tags: annie sundberg, conan o'brien, jay leno, joan rivers, joan rivers: a piece of work, late night tv, nbc, ricki stern, the devil came on horseback, the end of america, the tonight show, the trials of daryl hunt