It’s great to watch a documentary about something that you do which feels real and well done. This movie is a bit like Seinfeld’s Comedian, but better for me because she’s 45 years in and she shows that the “reason to do standup” doesn’t change…ever.
My brother was nagging me to “get a 401K” and I told him, “I’m a comic. I’m going to die. I have $238 dollars in a savings account in case something minor happens like I break my glasses. Or I want to take EVERYONE out to lunch.” We live our lives a bit differently.
It’s great to watch a documentary about something that you do which feels real and well done. This movie is a bit like Seinfeld’s Comedian, but better for me because she’s 45 years in and she shows that the “reason to do standup” doesn’t change…ever. Comedy is never going to make me whole. But, when I’m doing standup, I feel pretty damn close. So, whether or not I get the good stage time, money and fame like Joan Rivers, it’s always going to be like that.
Joan Rivers has the craziest working calendar I’ve ever gotten a glimpse of through a camera. She likes to work four times a day; ideally, every day. She likes to do a book signing, a home shopping network spot to sell some jewelry and two shows at night. Then she’s willing to take a redeye and land in another city at 3am to get up at 630am and do it all again. I’m not willing to ever take a red-eye and I’m exhausted just thinking about it. The constant work is fascinating but the greatest part is watching her standup process and how it, too, doesn’t stop.
This is a tiny slice of the real process because we get to see the new jokes fail as well as the ones that work. I don’t know what sort of deal she had with the movie people to see how they were portraying her, but she isn’t hiding anything here.
Some comics are never “done” doing standup. Like Cosby, Diller, Seinfeld, Rickles and about 3000 people no one knows the names of, Joan Rivers can’t stop. She claims at one point in the film that she’s “an actor playing a comedian” but that’s bullshit.
Actors act. They do dinner theater and any crummy productions that they can get because they have to act. I wish I had that kind of compulsion to act. Comics have something similar. Comics do standup. They get on stage in the Bronx through a trashed backstage hallway onto a tiny, poorly lit stage with a ripped up stool on it to talk to what looked like 100 people. She’s a comic that wants to be taken seriously as an actor and that’s fine, but she’s a comic. And one that is still writing and growing as a performer. She’s dark and smart and often horrifically funny. It was a joy to watch her.
I work a lot of different comedy venues with a million guys. And we’re all getting older. I have seen perfectly great comics get bitter and throw away their joy in comedy and their careers by leaving the place where they recognize great comedy and letting the anger about the million rejections take over. There are comics everyone knows who have gotten more fame, money, and attention than them. And I say to them the immortal words that were said to C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn, “All that hate’s gunna eat you up, kid.” Because it not only makes you into someone no one wants to hang around with, it eats up your comedy. Those bitter guys don’t write. They feel like, “why bother?”
Joan Rivers’ bothers. And she shows the jealously at others success, and the depression of not getting to do some things. But the cool thing is that, you can see, in the movie, the actions she takes to remind herself to be happy for others and proud to know great comics. You can see she’s discouraged but works to shake it off.
But 45 years of doing standup is its own reward on stage. At one point in the film she’s on stage (at what looks to be an Indian Casino in Wisconsin) and she gets heckled by some guy who has clearly been dragged to see her against his very will. His tone of voice resonated with, “why have you people made me spend $80 to see some foul-mouthed old woman I have never liked? I have beer at home for free” and he snaps.
He yells that she’s insensitive about something and Rivers shuts the guy down gets back into her act so hard and fast it was like watching a pro basketball player joining a pick-up game at the park. But when she got off stage, she beat herself up about how hard she hit him because it shouldn’t have happened at all. But there is no one to stop heckling, even at that level, and she didn’t create it. She just felt bad. Seinfeld got heckled on his special I’m Telling You For the Last Time and he couldn’t believe it, but he dealt with it because he’d been in for 25 years.
I saw Bill Cosby effortlessly got himself out of situation of his own making. He didn’t beat himself up. He’s a different comic. He created the situation for 20 minutes and then, sort of, clinically examined how it was going before he got himself out. It was fascinating to watch. He was making fun of fat kids. He then brought a fat kid on stage to make fun of him. Then brought the fat kid’s Mother on stage (which is when it got tense. I thought she was going to punch him right then). And then he got out of it. I have no idea how. I watched the whole thing from the audience and I could see him thinking up there, this isn’t going well, but like an up-close magician I couldn’t tell you how he did it, but he defused that crowd and went into another topic. It was an exercise for him and he had no problem getting out of it because, like Joan Rivers, he’s been at it for 45 years.
Kathy Griffin bookends the movie a little bit. She’s obviously being touted as the “next Joan Rivers.” She’s the second scene in and the second to last scene out of the film. And I think it’s a good comparison actually. I read Kathy Griffin’s Book, Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin and she is on board if you want to book her. Much like Joan Rivers, she will do whatever you’d like. They need the stage time, they want the money, and they’ll show up and work their socks off to make the event a great time. They’re comedy isn’t the same but their drive feels comparable.
This movie is a grand look into a great working comic’s life. Joan Rivers is fantastic and I would have been proud to have written some of the jokes she does, myself. Which is my ego, and yet, my best compliment.