Few documentaries truly redefine their subjects, but Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work shows the celebrity comedian and fashion critic in a drastically different light. Beginning with macro close-ups of Rivers’ face scrubbed red and raw in the makeup chair, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s movie presents her as a caustic, tough-as-nails survivor whose mixture of tenacity and desperation has kept her viable in an industry that generally dispenses with the services of women over 40. Rivers is hardly a likely Sundance attendee—at least outside of a gifting suite—but in January, she made the trek to Park City for the film’s première, convulsing a room full of indie-film aficionados with off-color jokes during the post-screening Q&A. A few days later, in a spacious suite filled with busy assistants, and with a package of false eyelashes laid out on a nearby table, Rivers talked to The A.V. Club about exposing herself on film, why she thinks of herself as an actress rather than a comedian, and the best way to tell jokes about Haiti, 9/11, and Hitler.
The A.V. Club: Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work is a shift from Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s past films. How did you come to hear about this project?
Joan Rivers: I’m very friendly with Ricki’s mother, and we kind of knew each other. I think they were looking for a project, and they’re always looking for strong women, because they’re two women and all that nonsense. I looked to them like a strong woman. So we got together and I said, right away, which I think they were very happy with, “If it’s a documentary, it’s got to tell the truth. It can’t be a puff piece, because that’s stupid.” You know, “Let’s call the Biography channel and do one of those talking-heads, ‘Isn’t she great?’” And it worked from the minute we started. It was so unobtrusive, and it was just amazing.
AVC: From a filmmaking perspective, the way they open with you before you’ve put on your makeup is very different from how most people are used to seeing you.
JR: The metaphor of that—seeing her without the makeup—was all great.
AVC: Did the directors approach you and explain their vision for that sequence?
JR: They approached me about nothing. Charles [Miller] would just come in with a camera, and Seth [Keal] would mic me up every morning, and they were always on. I didn’t even know they were getting in and taking it that close. I had no concept that they were doing that until I actually saw the rough cut. So they never asked me about anything, nor did I want them to.
AVC: As an entertainer, you’re always aware of your public image. In making this film, did you feel like you ever had to relinquish control?
JR: If you’re going to make a documentary, you have to. It’s just that simple. Everything is a choice. Every television show you go on is a choice. You go on Regis And Kelly, you can’t say “bitch.” My choice is, do I go on or do I not go on? And the minute I said “documentary” and chose to do it, I just gave it all up.
AVC: The scenes where you’re doing standup are much rawer than people might expect.
JR: Comedy is raw; that’s what comedy is today, and that’s where I’m at today. I always say—I go to play Cleveland, Ohio, and I always tell the interviewers, the ones doing the pre-press, “Don’t come for a walk down memory lane.” Those people shouldn’t come. It isn’t going to be grandma jokes. I think I even say that in the film, because my comedy has always been strong and outrageous, and that’s just where it is today.
AVC: There’s a YouTube clip of you on The Ed Sullivan Show, saying how women at 24 are old maids, but men can be 98 and still be a catch.
JR: And that was very shocking to say in those days. My original record, not even a CD, that I played for my daughter, which was called Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories—Mr. Phyllis was my hairdresser, and that was very shocking, that you dared to say your hairdresser was gay. I know it sounds so stupid.
AVC: In the film, you appear at a posthumous tribute to George Carlin, who was successful doing material on Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar that was palatable to a mass audience. Then at a certain point, he decided he’d rather play small clubs and be himself instead of playing it safe. In your case, the ideas are there in the Sullivan material, but it’s nothing compared to the clips of you from the ’70s, when you’re doing jokes about abortion.
JR: And the real joke, which they didn’t put on The Ed Sullivan Show, “She had 14 appendectomies and ended up marrying a Puerto Rican doctor.” They wouldn’t let me say it, but “Then she walked down the aisle in white and everybody went ‘Ha ha ha.’” That was wildly outrageous in those days—just not to be discussed.
AVC: Another thing that’s surprising is the fact that you see yourself more as an actress who plays the part of a comedian rather than a comedian per se. Most people don’t think of you that way.
JR: If you’re saying the same line 10 times and making it look like you just came up with it, that’s acting. That’s why they’re always so shocked. I always use Don Rickles, because he’s such a good actor. Look at him in some of the movie things he’s done. Look at him in Casino. He was fabulous in Casino. Look at the comics that have turned into actors, which are the Tom Hanks that were stand-ups. The Bill Murrays. Bill Murray! They’re all actors. Some get the choice to go on and do something else.
AVC: Do you have a favorite acting role that you’ve done?
JR: No. I’ve been on Broadway four times. I was up for a Tony and all that stuff. I just love acting.
AVC: You were in The Swimmer in 1968.
JR: And got a very good review. Go look up Time magazine. I remember I was the only one, or one of the only two, that got a good review out of it, which is hilarious, because I had four lines. I was caught in the middle. I was working with Burt Lancaster in this little part. He gets mad at his girlfriend, so he goes to pick me up just out of revenge, and at the end, my boyfriend comes over or something—a very short little scene. I was brought in because Frank Perry, the director, had seen me and was a friend of my husband. So Frank would direct me, “Walk over here.” And then Burt would say to me, “Sweetheart, I want you to walk over there.” It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. Who do you listen to? I ended up listening to Burt Lancaster. Perry was such a nice man. He came over and he said, “I know what this son of a bitch is doing. Next take, do it my way.” And I did it his way, and of course that was the one they used. Bad experience, but great fun acting.
AVC: In a movie, you don’t get to pick the take they use, but onstage, you’re essentially autonomous, unless the audience doesn’t want to hear it.
JR: If they really hate you, but you’re still autonomous enough that you can turn to another subject. Bill Cosby, who’s a friend, said, “I go out there and I work very hard for about five minutes. If they don’t like me, I go into automatic.” I go out there, I work very hard for five minutes, and if they don’t like me, I work harder. I go to the very end. I think, “Maybe you want to talk about… babies!” I punch the end.
AVC: One of the most striking moments in the film is the confrontation between you and an audience member who takes offense at one of your jokes. Your point is that comedy exists to laugh at things—
JR: …that aren’t laughable. But isn’t it? That’s what separates us from the animals. We laugh.
AVC: Have you always approached it that way?
JR: Always. I went to get my hair done before my mother’s funeral, and I said, sobbing, to the hairdresser, “If you don’t have me look good, you’ll be doing my mother’s hair by this afternoon.” [Laughs.] I always cover everything with a joke.
AVC: They show you in the movie making very caustic statements about things you clearly care about. You do a joke about getting tired of delivering meals to the same people with HIV over and over again—but as you do it, you’re mentioning the name of the charity, God’s Love We Deliver, every time.
JR: I’m one of the founders of that charity. They were dropping like flies in the beginning. It was just awful.
AVC: And you express a great deal of hostility toward your daughter, whom you obviously—
JR: Adore, but very angry at her turning down Playboy magazine for all that money. Are you crazy? Learn what makes the world go round.
AVC: And the ability to express that anger is liberating both for the performer and the audience.
JR: I have a wonderful psychiatrist that I see maybe once a year, because I don’t need it. It all comes out onstage. What could be nicer than to have three horrible children behind you in an airplane, and the next set, you go onstage and you talk about how much you despise the children and what you would like to do to them on an airplane? That’s the only time I would gladly take a terrorist on. It’d be worth it to get rid of these children. So you get it all out onstage, and the audience gets a catharsis too. And it gives the audience permission to laugh at things. That’s very nice, to be able to say to somebody, “It’s okay that your body’s falling. Everybody’s body’s falling. Calm down. It’s okay that this is going on. It happens to all of us.” If you don’t laugh, you die.
AVC: This level of hostility is also something that can be considered taboo for women. Women aren’t supposed to get mad.
JR: Nor are gentlemen. “Suck it up.” I don’t believe in sucking it up. I believe in saying what you think and moving on. I love it, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal come out with these studies, and I say, “You could have sent me the money.” The study says, “You should get angry at work. It’s healthy for you. You won’t have as many heart attacks.” Well, you should say to your boss, “You’re a fool,” but of course you don’t and you can’t.
AVC: There’s some conventional wisdom that good comedians tend to come from troubled and angry backgrounds. Do you think this is true across the board?
JR: I think it’s very true across the board. I think anyone who’s perfectly happy isn’t particularly funny. And when you’re very, very happy, you’re not very funny. You’re just happy. I’d rather be damaged and funny because I’ve been laughing for 76 years.
AVC: Some of the funniest jokes in the film are when you’re talking about trying to get out there more often, and not getting the bookings you want.
JR: Again, if it’s a fact of life and you laugh about it, it’s okay. Everything is okay if you laugh about it. And that’s a great weapon. That’s a cliché, but clichés come out of truth. The glass is always half-empty for me, because I say it’s filled with poison. Even now, as everyone is adoring this movie and loving this movie, I keep saying to Ricki, “Yeah, but we’ll see, well see.” But I’m also not stupid. I’m delighted and savoring the moment, too.
AVC: A lot of people are fascinated by the movie, but also wary of seeing it, because they have a very negative image of you going in.
JR: I worked at The Bitter End years ago, owned by a man named Freddie Weintraub, and we all came out of there—Woody [Allen], Bill Cosby, and George Carlin. There was a whole group that was going through there. Peter, Paul & Mary, The Mamas & The Papas; we were all mixed up together. Freddie would stand at the door after the shows and he would listen to the comments, and if people loved the act or hated the act, he brought them back. He said, “That means they have a quality people watch.” When people hate me, that’s good. They know I’m there. You’re not a chorus kid. Remember in A Chorus Line, she’s having trouble and he keeps saying, “You’re standing out,” and she’s trying not to? They hate me? That’s good.
AVC: The movie shows that you have a huge archive of jokes, written on index cards and filed by subject. People don’t think of you as a writer.
JR: I was a writer originally. I wrote before I performed. I wrote jokes for [Johnny] Carson. I wrote jokes for Phyllis Diller, a man named Milt Kamen, Bob Newhart. Bob Newhart always said, “Who knew? I would have bought more jokes.” That was the period Woody was a writer, [Dick] Cavett was a writer, I was a writer. We all knew each other. That was the moment when writers became performers. And everyone forgets that. People always say, “You were a writer?” Yes. Cosby was a writer originally.
AVC: One of the low points of the movie is the Comedy Central roast, which is full of jokes about your age and your plastic surgery. The directors said they left your rebuttal out of the movie because it couldn’t really be cut into; it’s a solid piece of writing that doesn’t break down into sound bites.
JR: When I was doing the roast, I was one of the writers, so I worked with the writers on everybody’s material, and then I knew I had to top them all. I thought, “This is going to be something.” Then I came up with that whole “God bless America” rant—“That’ll work.” And it did, thank God.
AVC: You’ve been performing for—
JR: Forever. 48 years.
AVC: Forever. Are you still out there sweating individual jokes?
JR: I can’t wait to start talking about Haiti, because I have so many great Katrina things I can bring back and do compare-and-contrasting. I sweat everything, because you want it to work, and you love it when it works, and it’s so exciting when it works. You never know what they’re going to love.
AVC: You said something about Haiti the other night.
JR: And it’s too soon. I said, “We’ve got to bring them back, because the world will miss their biggest export, which is AIDS.” [Laughs.] It doesn’t mean I’m not working for Haiti, or that I’m not having compassion. Of course it’s horrific, but that’s how I deal with it. Katrina—I was laughing at that. When I went down there, I saw people swimming around and I said, “What do you guys need?” “We need water.” “Assholes, I’m going home.”
AVC: A lot of comedians refused to joke about 9/11.
JR: I do joke about 9/11, because my big joke, which they didn’t put in, is they’re gonna win because they’re ugly and horrible and they can slam into a building and they get 72 virgins. What’s a Jewish guy going to get? A 50-year-old woman who still won’t swallow. They’re not gonna do it. And that’s why they’re going to win. That’s the start. Then I go on and on. You have to laugh. I was a New Yorker. It was so awful, you couldn’t believe it, but it brought the city together. I never saw a city totally come together and people in line to give blood, which wasn’t needed, because there was nobody else left alive. That was scary. The whole city came together.
AVC: The movie Four Lions is a comedy about jihadism, and no distribution wants to touch it.
JR: It’s hilarious. It’s funny. It’s terrible, but it’s funny. I’m very Jewish, and I like to remind them of the Holocaust, because there’s so much anti-, it-never-happened nonsense around, so I do it in terrible ways in my act. “I hate my relatives so much that I wrote a letter to Hitler.” [Laughs.] “Dear Mr. Hitler, If you get to Newark, New Jersey and I hope you don’t, but if you do, there’s a family at 147. Look in the basement for my cousin, Sheila. She’s carrying my Barbie.” Comedy should remind you, but in a funny way.