It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
One of the most celebrated and discussed comedy documentaries of recent years is Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The film, which bills itself as “A Year in the Life of a Semi-Legend”, follows Rivers in 2008, at the age of 75, resurrecting her career yet again.
Since this film was made, and possibly because it was, Rivers has definitely been upgraded to a full-on legend, despite her best efforts to not be relegated to the days of yore. As her manager puts it early on, “God help the next queen of comedy, because this one’s not abdicating.”
The film manages to be heartbreaking and inspiring while never forgetting its comedy roots. There are little glimpses into her life and process, including the famous card catalog, which includes her every joke, written on index cards and separated by subject (one drawer is labeled “Cooking” and “Tony Danza”).
One incredible element of the film is the seeming disparity between her lifestyle and her work ethic. As she says, she works hard so that she can live well, and live well she does — limos, a private plane, and an incredibly ornate penthouse. But she’s still out on the road, working out new material and playing theatres around the country. Just as Bill Cosby’s dedication to stand-up moved Jerry Seinfeld, River’s relentless work ethic is here an inspiration for her presumed successor, Kathy Griffin.
Just watching A Piece of Work is exhausting, even for those of us 50 years younger than the leading lady. She never seems to rest, and the film reminds us that her path the greatness was winding and uneven.
The trailer for the film gives away a lot of the best parts, so instead, here’s a clip of Joan Rivers on Graham Norton’s BBC Show, running circles around Johnny Knoxville and Catherine Tate. It’s a master class, and the entire episode is well worth watching.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Absolutely. As a profile of a hard-working businesswoman, a look at the brutality of show business, a discussion of the issues faced by women as they age — there are a dozen ways to look at this film, and each one is fascinating.
What does it have to say about comedy? So, so much. At one point, Rivers finds herself, on stage, defending the idea comedy. “That’s not funny,” an audience yells following a Helen Keller joke. “Yes it is,” she responds confidently, arguing that comedy is there to help us work through things. And yet, not long after, she crumbles as she prepares for her Comedy Central Roast, clearly dreading the barrage of insults. “They keep telling you it’s an honor. I’m telling you that if I had invested wisely, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
Is it funny? It is, but it’s also incredibly sad at times.
Can I stream it on Netflix? Yes!
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She lives like Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had had money.