July 18, 2010

"Everywhere you look there are jokes... I mean, my life is just... jokes."

A clip from the excellent documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work":

We saw this movie last night at Sundance in Madison. I have a special love for the documentaries in this niche. Show this new one as a triple feature with "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and "Grey Gardens." Here's the trailer for "Joan Rivers." Watch for the insult to Wisconsin, which got a huge laugh here in Wisconsin.

There was a line I tried to memorize, for me, the most interesting line in the movie. It was something like: "I am an actress — an actress playing the role of a comedian." When she was in high school, Joan was in all the plays. We see her in Shakespearean costume. She still sees herself as an actress. She says: You can say anything about her as a comedian, but don't criticize her acting. That's the one thing that hurts. That may seem very odd, because do you think of her as an actress (other than in the sense that when she's doing her comedy she may conceive of herself as playing a character that isn't really her)? She had a dramatic role in the movie "The Swimmer" (with Burt Lancaster)? And in the 90s she starred in (and co-wrote) the Broadway play "Sally Marr ... and Her Escorts" (a play about the woman who is mostly famous for being Lenny Bruce's mother). The NYT said:
Is Ms. Rivers also a great actress? No, she is not. But she is exuberant, fearless and inexhaustible. If you admire performers for taking risks, then you can't help but applaud her efforts. "Sally Marr" asks her to dig down deep and dredge up some elemental emotions. Ms. Rivers backs off from none of them. In her portrayal of a gutsy woman who has hit the skids more than once in her 80-odd years, there is a childlike sincerity that exerts its own spell in the end. Between Ms. Rivers and Ms. Marr an understanding obviously exists.....

[E]arly on, when Sally goes into her theory of comedy. "You don't start with funny and make it funnier," she explains. "Comedy comes from pain."...

It is the play's contention that without Sally Marr... there would have been no Lenny Bruce. Her outspokenness blazed the way for his iconoclasm; from her hatred of hypocrisy sprang his. She was even there when he made his first tentative steps as an M.C. in strip joints to coach him on the intricacies of comic timing and lend him some of her material. "Lenny Bruce opened the door for every modern American comic, right?" she says, putting her checkered past into perspective for us. "So, in a way, you could say I gave birth to George Carlin and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams and Bill Cosby and Gilda Radner and David Letterman."
So is she an actress, and if so, who is the real person? I don't think you get the answer in the "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." There's a scene where she's doing a radio promotion for her new book — "Men Are Stupid . . . And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman's Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery" — and the interviewer goes on about how, whatever a woman does to herself to try to look beautiful, she must, in the end, want to be loved as the person she really is. Joan's response: Who is the real me? Perhaps when the real person is an actor, there is a hollowness that must be filled with a written character.


Note to commenters: Please say something more interesting than that you don't like her surgically destroyed face. We can take that as a given. Don't be boring. It's worse than being ugly. Around here.


Anonymous said...

I don't think she's a particularly good actress. She merely found her character.

Joan Rivers isn't a person ... Joan Rivers is a cartoon character. And only John Rivers could play Joan Rivers.

danielle said...

"It's worse than being ugly. Around here."

Is that 2nd bit a real sentence ? Sometimes a love of the short sentence can lead one astray !

Anonymous said...
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danielle said...

Tragic: " Who is the real me? Perhaps when the real person is an actor, there is a hollowness that must be filled with a written character."

I'll buy the hollowness part, but the 'must be filled with ..." -- not a chance. i think that explains the path her career (and her face) have taken; but that doesnt have to be the case...

And maybe its the opposite: if she steps away from playing characters, and fame, then maybe then she can see the real Joan.

Anonymous said...

I don't like her surgically destroyed face.

HA HA HA! I'm breakin' the rules, Nigga, and that's why I love Joan Rivers! She is fucking independent and exudes confidence and is fucking funny too! A role model for all us contrarian wise-asses.

Who is the real me?

The commentariat has been asking this question about interesting people since ancient times... literally! They asked it about Jesus Christ (asking caused many a purge, starting with the Arian controversy) and Julius Caesar (asking caused a couple of wars and the end of the Roman Republic). And they asked it about Augustus.

Augustus answered on his deathbed:

If I have played my part well, clap your hands, and dismiss me with applause from the stage.

Those were, reportedly, his last words. His whole life was play-acting, and yet he was the greatest Emperor of the greatest Empire that the world has ever seen. At some point the play-acting isn't play-acting anymore.

DADvocate said...

"Men Are Stupid . . . And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman's Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery"

Is Rivers going for the female Andrew Dice Clay award. It's a good thing men are more tolerant and have better sense's of humor than women.

Dead Julius - I don't like her surgically destroyed face, either, and her original one wasn't that great. Rule number 1: never tell people not to do something. When I was in high school, the principal directed us not to write smut in each others yearbooks which were being distributed that day. Every yearbook from that year at that high school now has the word "smut" written throughout.

AprilApple said...

I like how she is not afraid to hide and mock her own plastic surgery. And, I think, considering her age, the surgeon did a fairly decent job.

now that that's out of the way...

I never thought of her as an actress. Though, stepping out on stage to preform an "act" is certainly acting.

John said...

During basic training in Great Lakes ('67) we got one 12 hr liberty and naturally we all went to Chicago. I saw the Picasso horse, had a $1.29 steak dinner at a Tad's and wound up in the USO.

Joan Rivers came in and did 45 minutes or so of routine. It was unscheduled and very informal. Apparently she would just show up from time to time when she had nothing else to do and entertain the troops.

Melissa had just been born and a lot of the jokes were about her and motherhood.

I had never heard of her before but have had a soft spot in my heart ever since.

John Henry

lucid said...

It is that she she acts the role of a comedian that creates the ironic space and distance about what we laugh at. And that makes her work so interesting and so durable.

EDH said...

Aside, you'd think she'd hire an intern/assistant to put those jokes in a database.

Meanwhile, I wouldn't call her face "surgically destroyed."

The surgical alterations are undeniable and pronounced, but I've seen a lot worse on women who are much younger. I think the significant cosmetic work she's had done is among the best of a bad lot.

More importantly, it enhances the neurotic, insecure and vain personae that has been her act for the last several decades.

rhhardin said...

I thought she was another Zsa Zsa Gabor or something, except she laughed at her own lines.

Awful TV guest.

edutcher said...

Most of what I know of Joan Rivers is from the Carson show. She never struck me as all that funny, but he obviously liked her a lot. He did everything he could to advance her career, but I don't think she understood how much she owed to him. Carson saw her as his replacement when he retired, but openly competing with him killed that.

The one thing of her life that surprised me was the depth of her marriage and how much her husband's death affected her (somehow, I had seen her as a much more superficial person). Between that, and her career imploding, she has, as New Ham said, become a caricature and does what she must to make a living.

I do feel sorry for her.

Anonymous said...

Who is the real me?

The Who's Real Me.

I think there's even a surgically destroyed face or two in there.

William said...

When I was young, damaged souls like Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, and Jim Morrison were presented as prophets of a new worlds and poets of a new age. Right. Their only really talent was in constructing catchy guitar chords while lost in a drug haze. Nonetheless they were admired and emulated in a way that Gershwin never was. Their catchy guitar chords justified all the wreckage they inflicted on themselves and everone in their orbit.....The ability to think on your feet and come up with a clever ad lib is an admirable talent. Still, so far as improving life on earth, it must rank as a very minor talent. It is higher perhaps than dog training but appreciably less than the ability to design microwavable bacon. The attempt to lionize comedians as wise elders of the tribe is as ill advised as our appreciation of musically gifted drug addicts. Joan Rivers is funny but the wish to glamourize her addiction to plastic surgery as courageous or anything but pitiable is wrong.....And for God's sake, Lenny Bruce was not some saintly figure. He did not die from sexual repression. He died from a drug overdose. It's safe to say that we can say fuck, and fuck, and watch people fucking with greater ease than in Lenny Bruce's time. It is arguable, however, that all of this fucking has made us any happier than we were in Lenny Bruce's time.

Revenant said...

I liked the joke about there being 1 outlet in Afghanistan, and to just follow the cord.

The trailer looks interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out for the film.

Calypso Facto said...

I just watched the movie too (from one row behind Ann and Meade!) and found it both much funnier and more poignant than I had anticipated. Joan comes across as an obviously very smart and driven yet exceptionally insecure woman.

I almost felt worse for her daughter, though, who is trying to establish herself in show business seemingly without the wit or fire of her mother, but only the same ill-advised plastic surgery.

Richard Dolan said...

People who talk incessantly about the "real me" are never really interested in some unknowable ego hidden inside. It's all a rant about why others don't sufficiently appreciated the Wonderful Me. Ann suggests that "[p]erhaps when the real person is an actor, there is a hollowness that must be filled with a written character."

Frankly, that's a bit of a cop-out. Unless you live in Plato's cave, everyone's life puts them in situations where you have to perform, pretty much daily. Life, after all, is not a stage and most certainly is not a dress rehearsal; but to the extent the metaphor has any power, it is not about the specialness of actors. Granted, celebrity brings its special burdens but hollowness is not necessarily among them.

If you want to find the source of River's hollowness, I'd look a bit earlier in that parapragh -- where she dismisses men as 'boobs' but then makes 'beauty through plastic surgery' her life-defining mantra. Who exactly is setting the standards of 'beauty' here if not the same boobs she dismisses? Why does she need their approval quite so cravenly? Again, it's not because, certainly not just because, she's an actress.

knox said...

I've been looking forward to this movie. Can't help but like her.

Drew W said...

That clip makes me want to see the movie.

I was a Columbia freshman when Joan Rivers returned to the Morningside campus (she’d gone to Barnard) for a screening of her movie Rabbit Test, in which Billy Crystal plays a man who gets pregnant. The movie was decidedly hit or miss, but I’d been a big fan, having grown up on her appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and elsewhere on TV in the ’60s. She spoke to the crowd for a few minutes after the screening, and was delightful. I’d heard that she’d be available for an interview while she was on campus, and although I had no journalistic experience, I tried to parlay my low-level work at the Columbia TV station into getting the interview. I think someone qualified ultimately got it, to my regret.

And does anybody remember when Joan Rivers made an appearance at a Republican fundraising event during the 1984 presidential race? Back then I considered Reagan to be Satan and anybody who promoted conservative ideas to be similarly infernal. But Rivers was pretty funny -- did they show it on C-SPAN? -- and I have to admit that despite my prejudices, I respected and admired her for her willingness to swim against the showbiz current. Much had been said that year of Walter Mondale’s inclusion of Geraldine Ferraro on the ticket as a big step forward for womankind. Rivers said something like: “So Mondale wants to put a woman in the White House -- big deal! Jack Kennedy put a million women in the White House!”

CBCD said...

I thought this movie was excellent. It was funny and interesting and moving and vulgar and poignant. It told a story I had not heard before.

Chip Ahoy said...

It was very good to see that. I now do not feel so all alone. That is exactly how I collect and hieroglyphics -- on index cards and in files. Presently portable cardboard file boxes that hold 1500 cards, but I'm in the market for wooden library card files. (eBay) mostly, where I do see them occasionally. I'll pop when I see the right ones. I find Joan's metal files unsightly, and that will not do, although I am mightily impressed with the vastness of her collection and her persistence in collecting, even though it's weird. I too have files in notebooks, blank cards and pens always at the ready, as bookmarks, on tabletops, electronic files spread all over the place online, Photobucket, Flickr, Picasa, My Opera, B3ta, Apple, here on separate Blogger sites (where I'm back to fighting with "search"), Wordpress, and on three hard drives, incomplete cards and files, questionable cards, variations, cards with mistakes. My own family, bless 'em, find this proclivity exceedingly odd. My older brother asked about the physical cards that he could see, not about the greater number of electronic cards that he could not see,, "So these are what -- flashcards?" I go, "uh, sorta." He goes, "Why dontcha just learn Esperanto?"

The joke Joan pulled at random, "Why should a woman cook? So her husband can say, "My wife make a delicious cake to some cooker?"" goes thud as an antique joke pulled from an antique file. But I'm imagining her youthful self still married, onstage delivering her own ironic views of marriage and womanhood given with her trademark expressions, and it does sound funny tucked inside a string of similar deliveries. "Why am I doing this?" (cooking). Very funny, but even more amusing, why are you doing that? (amassing jokes on cards).

I would love to rifle that file.

Methadras said...

I'm a fan of the old Joan Rivers when she was making fun of her poor recluse husband that I think killed himself to finally get away from her and her constant naggin.

Trooper York said...

I am a big fan of reality shows. One of the reason I enjoy them is that it shows that the camera does not allow you to pretend to be something you are not over time. You can pretend to be a good, kind, caring person but the reality of acting out your everyday life exposes just what type of person you are. So the villians of reality TV like Amarosa, Jill Zarin, Danielle Staub and Vicki Gundelson can not hide the type of person they really are because it always comes out in their interaction with the other people on the show. Especially those that are not "Stars" and are just service people or working people.

Of all the reality shows that I have ever seen there is no one that was worse than Joan Rivers on the "Celebrity Apprentice." She had the balls to call someone Hitler in the most foul and unbelievable way because she beat out her Demon Spawn Melissa. She is by far the worst person I have ever seen on reality TV. Bar none.

I won't talk about her looks as per your request. She is a lot uglier on the inside.

ricpic said...

Just saw it. Rivers in one word? Driven. And for the record I like her. "I'm only happy when I'm on stage." That got to me. Like a horse in harness. Like a million other people.

knox said...

She's funny as hell on "Fashion Police." We were cracking up the whole time the last one we watched.

traditionalguy said...

Rivers is a trenchantly funny observer of humanity and its self deceptions. She can use a psychological point of view on someone's conduct and then she makes a sarcastic punchline at their expense. So hating Rivers act can off-set a love for her humor. But she does not give a damn...that is her skill and she works hard at it. She only hurts feelings, and is harmless.

ricpic said...

Funniest moment in the picture is when some factotum at the Kennedy Center tells Joan in total earnestness that it'll be okay if she says fuck in her routine, but only one fuck allowed.

Second funniest moment is when Joan is trying out jokes in her manager's presence. "If Jacqueline Kennedy was Jackie-O why can't Michelle be Blackie-O?" Her manager then firmly discourages Joan from using that joke. There are some folks one just doesn't joke about.

Sixty Grit said...
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Pogo said...

"Who is the real me?"

The documentary looks like something I'd watch. Fascinating clip. But I had the same reaction to Rivers as Trooper from her reality gig, so I'm hedging.

Who is the real me?
For some, they become the character they've honed onstage or at work. The mask worn is as much a part of the 'real' you as the rarely-seen side, that darker twin hidden away but for times of stress and emotion.

There is no real separate you in that sense. All are facets of the whole. That character you've been working on is entirely shaped and interpreted by the real you.

The question is lesser than its companion query:
How can I be a better person?

The first is selfish, the second is service.

Anonymous said...

I find Joan Rivers funny. I will see the documentary. She is terrific. Now, she has class. Palin could learn a lot from her.

Sixty Grit said...
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jamboree said...

Joan comes across to me as Kathy Griffin with a heart. Don't know much about her. I have a vague memory of something back when. Oh wait - she was very supportive of Boy George. That's it. And I remember her constant harping on her body's flaws and daughter's marital state annoyed me.

Margaret Cho is my "bordering on harsh" comedienne of choice. She advanced the cause of harping on one's body by openly fighting the battle and in the end more or less winning and turning it into a positive. Joan didn't even try. A lot of that can be attributed to her age and times, so I don't want to come down too hard on it - but it was depressing nonetheless.

Trooper York said...

Joan Rivers stole Phyllis Dillers act. It is just that Phyllis is a nice person and Joan is the ultimate cunt.

Johnny Carson did all he could do to advance her career and she stabbed him in the back at the first chance she got. And then complained that Johnny was being "mean to her."

Joan Rivers has class? Yeah all of it low.

And not good low class. You know hard working salt of the earth class. She is smeared lipstick, cat hair on the sweater, meet my unspeakable disgusting daughter why don't you class. She hounded her poor husband to death. Which you can't blame him for after all. I mean anyone who has to spend so much time with this twat would just have to kill themselves.

She is an evil old hag with all the class of a rancid hotdog fetid with courrption and maggots rotting in the sun.

Sixty Grit said...
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Trooper York said...

Thanks Sixty. I hate when it builds it up. When you let it out you fell a lot better. Sort of like Titus when he pinches off a big loaf of Joan Rivers.

traditionalguy said...

Joan was like the wind that blows through and for a moment you are laughing that someone actually said that.

That's all she was. But she loved people and left them relaxed and happy, except for the seriously twisted misogynists that she had to confront.

Isn't that enough?