Joan Rivers in A Piece of Work
When I found out that Joan Rivers passed away last week, it wasn’t through Facebook or Twitter or an alarmist 72-point headline on the Huffington Post, but from a stream of emails and text messages that flooded my phone. It felt personal. I didn’t know Joan Rivers, not really. But I did spend a year working on a documentary about her life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. I was just a production assistant, but in that year, I spent hours and hours watching and transcribing footage of Joan, living under the gigantic presence of this tiny 76-year-old lady’s life.
That same year, I had a part-time job walking around the Central Park reservoir each morning with another elderly lady, who couldn’t quite see well enough to walk on her own. We’d spend about an hour talking about her life as a United Nations translator (among other things), and then she’d slip me $20, ashamed her doorman might see our illicit transaction. Then I’d spend the rest of the day watching Joan Rivers. If there was ever a young woman with more access to the daily insight and reflections of fascinating older women, it was me in 2009 and 2010. While there is a lot to glean from Joan Rivers about being a comedian/performer/businesswoman, in all that footage from her 76th year, I learned a lot more about what it means to be old.
The few times I actually did meet Joan in person, it was like seeing that girl crawl out of the television in The Ring; I spent every day seeing and hearing Joan, but when she could see and hear me back, it was scary and uncomfortable. This is a sensation I don’t think Joan Rivers felt very often. Even into the final years of her life, Joan Rivers did not watch people from afar. She stomped right up to them and punched them in the face with a manicured, QVC-ring-clad fist. Maybe they didn’t always deserve it, but then that wasn’t really the point.
Joan Rivers lived her life pushing the limits, putting one toe over the line, and then sneaking her whole foot over when no one was looking. What’s amazing about her career is that the line never caught up with her. There are plenty of comics who were daring and shocking for their time, but Joan never really had a time. Her name doesn’t elicit nostalgia, because she didn’t allow herself to be tied to any particular moment in history. As Kathy Griffin explained it in A Piece of Work: “You know what the real pinnacle in a comedy career is? It’s not an Oscar; it’s not one thing. It’s the fact that you’re still doing it.”
When you watch Joan, you aren’t seeing another aging comic reminiscing about the good old days when people could get drunk on TV. You saw a wide-eyed girl taking in the world and relishing all the silly, shitty things in it. Sure, maybe we didn’t always need another Miley Cyrus crack, but when it’s being tweeted by the woman who once joked about Liberace’s boobs to Johnny Carson, it’s worth admiring. After Oprah did an exclusive interview with Whitney Houston in 2009, I saw Joan do a set at a comedy club in Hell’s Kitchen and joke about Whitney leaning over to snort dandruff off Oprah’s shoulder. Maybe she was mean, but at least she was punctual. Her compulsion to stay current, to stay young, was the most obvious and special thing about her. You could see it written all over her face.
Though her changing physical appearance is a much more complex, intimate part of her life than anyone can really claim to understand, it too is an apt reflection of her career. She physically looked like a different person in each major phase of her life. But, her thirst for youth was not the same as a desire to go back in time, and given some of the well-documented shit she’s been through in her life, I can’t blame her. Her husband Edgar committed suicide in 1987, around the same time her Fox talk show was canceled and she famously fell out with her longtime champion Johnny Carson. It’s not surprising that a person in that circumstance would have a strong desire to move forward, to make fresh material, to propel herself out of the past.
In one of my favorite lines from A Piece of Work, Joan says, “If one more woman comedian comes up to me and says to me, ‘You opened the doors for me’… you wanna say, 'Go fuck yourself—I’m still opening the doors.'” She’s blunt, but she’s right. It would be an insult not to acknowledge how hard Joan was still working up until her fantastic final year. She knew that she couldn’t stop, because the world wasn’t stopping around her. She had to catch up, and she always did.