I have to admit, I was not really a Joan fan. In fact, her “can we talk” shrillness used to make my shoulders tense when I would hear it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for brash, uncouth, in-your-face behavior. As a former New Yorker, even her accent didn’t get under my skin. I think it was a quiet desperation that I intoned, something underneath her poking fun at celebrities, bristling at housewives, and most of all, her self-deferential slant that gave me pause. I just really never tuned into her Late Show debacle, or her Joan Rivers Show on television, though it ran for five years. And then, just when I might have given her more credit, she started the heinous mother-daughter alliance for which she has become known since the 1990s: the red carpet pre-award hosts for cable channels like E! Entertainment and TV Guide Channel (yes, imagine that, even they have a channel!). There has also been several guest spots on TV shows I don’t watch, like Nip/Tuck, QVC Shopping Network, and Celebrity Apprentice in which her daughter, Melissa, appeared in the same season and lost. Joan went on to win. During all this time, Joan has had some, shall we say, adjustments, in the surgical arena. Whether you endorse this practice or not, it’s difficult not to judge someone that you only know through a TV image or in a magazine, and they appear so completely altered. Like a puppet, a shard of one’s former self.
Taking this all into consideration, I went to see the Joan Rivers movie on my recent June trip to New York. It was playing at the Malvern Theater, a great venue on Long Island. There were maybe five people in the audience. As I watched this documentary style movie unfold, many details of Joan’s life came into light of which I had no former knowledge. The falling out with her industry mentor Johnny Carson in 1986 over her move from the Tonight Show to a soon-to-launch Fox TV Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (he would never speak to her again). I recalled reading something about her husband Edgar Rosenberg’s suicide in 1987, but never saw what toll that took on Joan and their sole progeny, Melissa. Joan felt his demise was impacted by the fact that Fox wanted her to fire Rosenberg, and when she refused, they were both let go. Imagine, firing your husband from his job. Or losing your husband in such a horrible manner, eaten up by the same machine that feeds your family. That fuels your career.
More than anything, I saw the drive that Joan Rivers has, as a person, and as an actress. There is one shot in which she reveals a catalogue full of her jokes on cards. She whips out one or two from thousands of choices and reads it. And it’s funny. She’s a riot. But the irony here is that she wants to be taken seriously, wants to be treated as a serious performer. Twice she has had plays mounted about her own life. The first play did well until it hit Broadway, where it was panned by critics. Her last play, which is covered fairly extensively in the movie, revealed how vulnerable any actor is to the system. How skewed the relationship between performer and critic really is. I was amazed by her work ethic, and thought that for someone who is nearly 80 years old, she works harder than most Americans. Certainly harder than me.
I’m still unsure if I’m a fan of Joan Rivers. I love comedy though, and to see these talented young performers like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, the comedians of my generation, one has to wonder if they’d be as successful without Joan. Iconic, yes. Trailblazer, sure. She doesn’t want to be seen as that, though. She’d still rather be headlining any of their stand-up routines. Or in an Oscar role. Any day of the week.