Joan Rivers examines her life in A Piece of Work
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work exposes the private dramas of comedian and pop icon Joan Rivers as she fights tooth and nail to keep her American dream alive. A unique look inside America's obsession with fame and celebrity - Joan's story is both an outrageously funny journey and a brutally honest look at the ruthless entertainment industry, the trappings of success and the ultimate vulnerability of the first queen of comedy.
With unprecedented, unguarded access, the film takes the audience on a year long ride with Joan Rivers in her 76th year of life; it peels away the mask of an iconic comedian, laying bare both the struggle and thrill of living life as a groundbreaking female performer. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg expose the private dramas of this irreverent, legendary comedian as she fights to keep her career thriving in a business driven by youth and beauty.
We recently caught up with Joan on a very busy Saturday to chat with her about the film. Here is our conversation:
It's a little weird watching this film, because it seems as though you've inadvertently been in my life since I was born. And I noticed that some things have been left out of the documentary. You were the first person to ever warp my mind for the better, as I happened upon a commercial for Rabbit Test when I was seven. And I couldn't quite comprehend it at the time. What were you thinking when you made that film? Why do we seldom ever hear you talk about it? And why have you not directed since?
Joan Rivers: I don't know. I think that film came too early. We were out right before Airplane! We were taken to tremendous task by the critics. In one scene, Imogene Coca Lysoled her food to make it look nice when the guests were coming over. Six different reviews said, "That's disgusting!" Then, in Airplane!, someone said, "The shit is going to hit the fan." And it did. Literally. The audience was ready for it. You know what I'm saying? We were just too early. It was my first time directing. I had a very bad cinematographer. And I wasn't a very good director. I saw it a few years ago. I laughed six times. You want to know something? That's a lot of laughs for a movie nowadays.
What happened to your career as a director after that came out?
Joan Rivers: What happened to me? A lot of things, honey. You just move on. Which is the point of this documentary. I think. You just move on. I was never asked to direct anything else. No major film studio ever came to me and said, "Joan, here is a movie we want you to direct!" Never.
The most shocking thing for me, and this works into my preconceived notion of you as a person, is that you'd actually read reviews of your own work. Why would you personally want to expose yourself to that? And why did you take it so seriously? Especially in this day and age when most critics seem to have an agenda, and you're someone they feel they can be hypercritical of?
Joan Rivers: People at this point in my life have such, as we say in the movie, a preconceived idea of who I am. They always come in with a negative adjective. I'm careful what I read. I don't read anything the next day. If you'll remember, we wanted to bring my show to New York. That is a very big thing. You have to read what people are saying about it.
Do you think critics and reviewers feel they have more of a license to attack you simply because of your comedic style?
Joan Rivers: I think so. Very often my persona on stage, which is very rough and tough, and has me yelling about the whole world, which I love doing because I don't need a psychiatrist, is taken as who I really am. You know what? That doesn't matter. What I've learned through the whole thing, truly, is wear blinders and run your own race.
The film certainly achieves what it sets out to. But it fails to touch on certain aspects of your life. You tell the audience that you'll blow your brains out if another female comedian compliments you on breaking down doors or barriers. At the same time, this film doesn't ever acknowledge the ground breaking work you've done as far as being a journalist and an interviewer.
Joan Rivers: I am so not interested in that. Saying it means you are over. We didn't touch on this aspect because they were only with me for a year and a half. That is number one. The film is 83 minutes. It's not my film. Ask Ricki Stern why we don't see that. I am just a subject. She had to make choices in what she wanted to show. There will be an auxiliary DVD. I don't know the answer, because I wasn't the one that made the scene selections. What she chose was terrific. She had sixteen months of film to look at.
Do you not feel its your place to talk about your own legacy and what you've achieved in this field of entertainment?
Joan Rivers: You are talking about things that aren't in the film. That you wish were in the film. But look at all the things that are in the film. Its 83 fucking minutes long. What do you fucking want? She picked what she thought would be interesting to the public. And I think it is interesting.
Yes, and that is why I am asking you now. Since it's not in the film. Why don't you view some of the things you've done as being important or ground breaking?
Joan Rivers: I'm very competitive. I don't want to hear that I've broken open any doors. That puts me out of it. Then I am not in the trenches with these girls any more. I am still very much in the trenches, and I could take them all with one hand behind my back.
But your interview style, and the way you put celebrities on a level that was more human than anyone else at the time, was revolutionary. And you opened up a new avenue for people like Arsenio Hall and Conan O'Brien, and just about every one else we see working at the moment. Johnny Carson shouldn't get all the credit.
Joan Rivers: I am thrilled that you are saying this. (Laughs)
That is outside of the realm of comedy. You influenced males even more so then females in this area. Because we don't see too many female talk show hosts immerging in Late Night. Ellen is close.
Joan Rivers: That is daytime. Daytime is very different. And much softer. Ellen's approach to everything is, "Love me! Love me! I'll do a dance, and I'll never ask a difficult question." That is fine. People can tune in to see her. And not be on the edge. You can iron during Ellen. Here we go again. The thing is, I still do this. When I get the chance.
And the point of the film is that you don't want to be painted into a corner. You don't want to be seen as someone who has broken down doors, because you are still breaking them down.
Joan Rivers: Exactly!
When the film begins, we see that you are still constantly struggling with your career. Do you consider this perfect timing? With everything that has happened since you first began filming? That you're back in the spotlight?
Joan Rivers: For the moment. How do we know the good times are here to stay? You know what I am saying? You can never, ever say you are in a good place. The next day you wake up. You're not in a good place. I have a new, wonderful show. It is doing great for TV Land, but its still TV Land. Will people find it? Will it be profitable enough for TV Land to continue doing it? You never know. You'll never know what is going to happen.
This environment has to be even more competitive than it ever was thirty or forty years ago?
Joan Rivers: People know you. They come in with a preconceived notion. And you are not new to them. New is interesting to all of us. If someone said to me, "Do you want to see Joan Rivers or do you want to see Shiela Schwartz? She is new, I saw her last night on Late Show with David Letterman." I would go see Shiela Schwartz. I am making up that name. What I am saying is that everyone gets more disinterested the more they get to know you. They think they know all about you. And they think they know what they are going to see. You have to be bigger and brighter, and funnier than ever to stay in the range.
In regards to the criticism that is pointed towards you, you seem more hurt by their words in regards to your acting more than anything else. Because that means more to you than anything else. At this age, why don't you seek out a project that would allow you to act? And show a side of yourself that we've never seen before?
Joan Rivers: No one ever comes to me with anything. That is what we show in the film. It is a self-made coda. I think more people have self-made careers than we realize. Darling, I am more than interested. I have never had a script sent to me. Where they wanted me to do anything but play myself. Send me a script.
If I gave you a script and said I only have $1200, but that this is one of those Crazy Heart movies that could win you an Oscar, you would do it in a heartbeat?
Joan Rivers: Of course! Look where I work every Wednesday night. They show me walking into the downstairs of that editing room. I never realized how ugly it was. (Laughs)
In the film, you show a very shy side of yourself. Often times people take this shyness as you being unapproachable.
Joan Rivers: Most comedians are very brash because we are very shy. That is such a cliché. But a cliché is a cliché because it's true. If twelve truths come together, than it's a cliché.
Do you think that might be why independent filmmakers never think to come to you with a script. That they perceived you as being untouchable?
Joan Rivers: I have an agent. I don't give a fuck. (Laughs) It's a good combination, huh?
How frustrating is it for you personally, when you do something like the Comedy Central Roast, and you have someone in the booth during the pre-tape telling you your jokes aren't funny? Even though you've been doing this for more than forty years.
Joan Rivers: Its beyond frustrating. It happens constantly. It happens anyplace you don't have control. Everyone's idea of funny is different. Have you ever met anyone that says, "I'm not funny." Everyone thinks they are hilarious. They think they know what funny is. And they all think they should tell me what is funny. And that's what I should do. But you know what works instinctively for you. That leads me to standing up and saying, "No! No! No!" You plead these jokes. I was pleading for jokes on Johnny Carson. I am telling them its funny. Then sometimes you do it, and it's not funny. They will always turn to you and say, "Ha! See!" You can't win. I didn't win at Fox. We were fired from Fox because we didn't apply ourselves with ambition. It's very nice to say, "I know more than you!" But then you're not going to do it. You're not even going to have half a platform.
It seems that people have told you what not to do, then when someone else does it, they are praised. Is that a frustration you've dealt with your whole career?
Joan Rivers: Constantly. But you know what? I have never looked back. If I looked back, I would stop. You never look back in this business. You constantly move forward. What is the point of saying, "Well I did it first, see?" Move on, move forward.
I don't think, until now, we've seen you be as vulnerable as you are in this film. Why for you, personally, was it important to show that very personal side of yourself to the world?
Joan Rivers: I didn't pick it. I am just the subject matter. You will have to ask Ricki Stern why she picked that stuff out of the sixteen months that she shot. When they photograph you for sixteen hours a day, they are going to see more. And they are going to pick what they want from that.
Are you happy that those more tender moments are in the film?
Joan Rivers: I am thrilled that its not a biography. You'd have six talking heads saying, "She's wonderful." Then they'd say, "She was on drugs for two minutes. Then she got off of them." I don't want that. A biography is not a real film. It's not a good documentary. A good documentary has to give the viewer something different. I have seen too many documentaries that don't tell you a goddamn thing about the person. I walked away from The September Issue going, "Who is that woman?" I don't know her anymore than I did before I watched it. I walked away from Valentino: The Last Emperor going, "Which one was Valentino?" do it the way Ricki did it. Or don't bother. You can watch me on Biography. There, you will find six people saying how much they love me.
And one person saying how much they don't like you.
Joan Rivers: They never dislike you on the Biography channel.