Sunday, June 13, 2010

The humor of desperation

Watching the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, I started getting depressed about two-thirds of the way through. This is when Rivers goes to a Comedy Central roast of herself.

If I had managed my investments better, she tells the camera, there is no way I would agree do this.

As she sits in her limo, squeezed off in one lonely corner by the window, she sighs as she anticipates the insults that are coming her way: Plastic surgery jokes, naturally. Age jokes are sure to follow. (She's 77.) The idea that it's a "great honor" is simply ridiculous.

But the money is very good, she admits. (A fact she will bring up more than once.) And while she is hardly living in poverty, keeping up her grand life style requires compromises.

It felt a little like watching Mickey Rourke readying himself for a bout in The Wrestler. There is routine. There is familiarity. There is weariness. And there is a sense of duty about it.

Depending on your perspective, it's either deeply pathetic or somewhat moving. Maybe a bit of both.

Which is more or less the way I felt about this movie as a whole.

There was a time when Joan Rivers was an extremely funny comedienne -- who was better, I think, than she is commonly remembered. She was a sassy Jewish gal -- who was cutting and clever, who was clearly no dope, and who had an unapologetic persona: Jewish American Princess. (The first popular version, in a way.) A princess who was blistering with insecurities, but who was fully aware of them. And who took a certain pleasure in them.

But Rivers has transformed into something else over the years. While she was greatly successful, there was always a sense that she could have been bigger. Her career took a number of tumbles. (After her feud with Johnny Carson, she went into a tailspin.) The plastic surgery made her -- as she herself says -- a joke. And her personal life took its tolls. (Her husband committed suicide in the 1980s.) Her comedy became somewhat meaner and more jaded.

In A Piece of Work, Rivers is at times very funny about her current station in life -- but also one of the more bitter and self-pitying people I've ever seen depicted on screen.

She will turn down nothing. (Including penis enhancement commercials that William Shatner and George Hamilton had the good sense to pass up.) We watch this little Jewish woman hoofing it through airports and casinos -- her face plastered over casino billboards (and even the poker tables) -- and staying in ice bound Wisconsin hotels.

You have to admire such tenacity. Even as you recognize how sad it is. It is far more bearable to endure the indignities of being a vagabond than the agonizing realization that her moment is long over. (She can barely contain her jealousy of Kathy Griffin, her heir apparent, who makes a little cameo.)

This movie is also (at times) funny. Although probably not as funny as a lot of the people in my audience found it. Both the Times and New York magazines articles are overly generous.

But I will admit that when Rivers is in the ratty clubs, trying out new material, I laughed. The mind working behind these jokes is quite sophisticated. (Not much is lost on her.) These jokes are sometimes as barbed and as scatological as the filthy Sarah Silverman. (Not that Rivers would find such a comparison complimentary. She no doubt feels the same rage towards Silverman that she does towards Griffin.)

Most of the best jokes in the movie could not be repeated on a family blog (and, to be honest, I don't remember the build up quite enough to do them justice). But I think my favorite moment is when she's at a tribute to George Carlin and nervously going through all the comedians she'll be sharing the stage with: Bill Maher (brilliant!); Garry Shandling (brilliant!); Jon Stewart (smart!) until she finally gets to Ben Stiller.

"Eh..." she trails off with expert timing.

The joke works because it shows that Rivers is not without good taste and judgement. (And that she's catty as hell.)