Before all the plastic surgery and before the abysmal red carpet commentary on E! or wherever, Joan Rivers was great. She was acidly funny, she said things that needed to be said and she was a woman reaching the top echelons of success in a stand up comedy field notably dominated by men.
For me she peaked in the early-to-mid 1980s when she was installed as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. The beginning of the end came when she broke with The Tonight Show to start her own late night talk show on FOX in 1986. The move ruined her relationship with her mentor Carson, her show floundered and she and her producer/husband Edgar Rosenberg were fired. Rosenberg would commit suicide 3 months later.
Rivers turned up on E! in the mid 90s doing awards show pre-ceremonies when such a thing was still a novelty. At first her willingness to puncture the balloon of vacuous celebrity was refreshing but before long it turned bitter, shrill and more than a little desperate.
I didn’t think too much about the documentary Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work when it premiered at Sundance in January (where it won the documentary editing award) because all I could think of was the horrible E! version of the comedian. Reviews have been strong however and they’ve bumped up my interest in checking it out. Whatever you might think of her act, you have to admit there is a fascinating study in show business underneath the plastic surgery and the bluster.
Hopefully the film which follows Rivers during her 78th year will also remind us what made her great in the first place.
Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work opens June 11.