By every objective standard, Joan Rivers has reached the pinnacle of success in comedy. She’s a pioneer, an icon, and a consummate survivor, but in the ruthlessly honest documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Rivers behaves as if her fragile sense of self-worth will dissipate completely if a crowd at an Indian casino in Wisconsin doesn’t guffaw heartily at every wisecrack and ad-lib. She’s a squirming bundle of insecurities driven relentlessly by desperation, calculation, and the fierce, not unsupportable belief that if she lets up for even a second, her place in the pop-culture hierarchy will be usurped by friend/rival Kathy Griffin. A Piece of Work is the antithesis of Jerry Seinfeld’s engaging but superficial 2002 documentary Comedian: where the innately private Seinfeld holds nearly everything back, Rivers loudly broadcasts the kind of fears, anxieties, and ambitions most people would do anything to hide. There’s no separation between Rivers’ onstage and offstage persona. She’s the same shameless ham whether playing to an audience of thousands or to her indulgent entourage.
A Piece of Work chronicles a year in the life of Rivers as she struggles to hold onto her tenuous popularity and survive in an entertainment world that worships youth. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg follow Rivers as she plays casinos and theaters, takes an autobiographical one-woman show to England, and frets, bitches, complains and, in a characteristic display of chutzpah and shamelessness, agrees to serve as the spokesperson for a penis enlargement pill.
At the core of Rivers’ kibbitzy style of unvarnished truth-telling lies a deep reservoir of sadness, rooted in the suicide of her longtime manager, producer, and husband Edgar Rosenberg and the emotional scars incurred when Rivers’ mentor and early champion Johnny Carson had her blacklisted from NBC after she hosted a competing, ill-fated talk show on Fox. Much of A Piece of Work inhabits the tricky intersection of comedy and tragedy: the specter of mortality looms large for Rivers, as does the even more terrifying possibility of professional irrelevance. A Piece Of Work is funny, heartbreaking, and casually profound about the insatiable need for validation and approval that fuels so much stand-up comedy.