America: Take Another Look At Joan Rivers

Dear America: hold on, don't let her go. She's nearly 78. Take another look and rediscover your love. C'mon, you've embraced Betty White.

Look, it's darn easy to lampoon Joan Alexandra Molinsky Sanger Rosenberg. There's more material than Snooki or Sheen: the plastic surgery addiction, the over-the-top accent, the hammy "can we talk?"

Yet just this week, there was the septuagenarian Joan Rivers giving a vintage performance on E!'s "Fashion Police," skewering both the dresses and performers on the Golden Globes red carpet.

"Mad Men's" January Jones? "Don't whore it up ... her name is January and her boobs are spilling into February." Megan Fox? "I want to say I admire the Golden Globes for finally this year opening the awards to non-actors."

No doubt, some of her lines came with an assist from writers. But her delivery was marvelous. During extemporaneous discussion, she showed she's as witty and sharp as ever. Her foul mouth -- four bleeps during the hour -- was worth a chuckle. Even with endless nips and tucks, she also looked great.

Along with her E! awards season star turn, Rivers has a show coming to the WE network, about living with daughter Melissa Rivers. It's worthless, standard-issue cable reality fare with a fish-out-of-water conceit. If Rivers weren't on it, she'd rip it.

"Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" falls apart as soon as the bombshell Swedish nanny Melissa has hired -- actually, the producers -- appears. She's simply a set-up for Joan's zingers. The show's only redeeming part are scenes where mother and daughter banter alone and a touching dynamic between the two emerges.

Why is Rivers doing such an abomination, not to mention hawking jewelry on Canadian QVC and stand-up in Sheboygan?

She's a summa cum laude 1954 Barnard graduate, who broke ground for female comedians. She's been in comedy for going on 50 years and made jokes about abortion when it was verboten. She was anointed by Johnny Carson as a budding star, then spent two decades guesting and guest-hosting on "The Tonight Show."

Sadly, much of that is forgotten. Her disastrous, short-lived late-night show on Fox kick-started a descent. Johnny could have, but wasn't willing to help her make a comeback. When she moved to Fox as a competitor, Rivers says he "felt betrayed" and "he literally had me blacklisted" from appearing on NBC late night for decades. She was so happy to do the "Celebrity Apprentice" two years ago in part just to get back on NBC.

There are many other reasons why she took that B-list or below gig. Or continues to play comedy clubs twice a week, or perform at corporate conventions, or appear in commercials for any would-be sexual miracle.

It's all explained in the fantastic 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." Netflick it immediately. It may be the best thing Joan has done since she parted with Johnny.

The viewer recognizes the pathos in her, but leaves with an enduring appreciation for Rivers as a person and performer. As Regis and Larry -- who are both about Joan's age -- vacate prominent gigs, the film stirs an interest in Joan that should last the rest of her career. Sad but surprisingly endearing, is Rivers' unabashed desire to keep going simply for cash to maintain a lavish lifestyle. At the same time, she claims to support relatives and pays for private schools for staff members' kids.

Some of the film's best scenes show her on the phone pursuing any old gig. "I will do anything," she says. (She might call herself a work-a-whore.)

She's happiest when she can show a calendar with business meetings in the morning, TV appearances in the afternoon and a comedy booking at night. When the date planner is blank, she holds it up and says: "I'll show you fear. That's fear."

She's kept calendars for years back and they should be in the National Archives. So should a huge filing cabinet with her jokes on note cards, filed and labeled under titles such as "Tony Danza," "My Sex Life" and "No Self Worth."

The film makes it apparent that what drives her more than anything - even cash -- is the quest to boost an ever-flagging ego. A shy woman who can joke her way through any situation, she needs an audience's applause and validation -- for as many nights as she can get it. "This is where I belong," she says. "The only time I am truly, truly happy is when I am on stage."

The film does a stellar job providing insight into other aspects of Rivers' life. It shows her with makeup removed, so to speak, speaking emotionally and heartfelt about difficult subjects. Plastic surgery? The ridicule hurts. If it makes her feel better, why shouldn't she do it?

Her marriage, which ended with her husband's suicide? She wasn't madly in love, but it worked, especially with her career.

Then, there's her passion to be considered a viable actor, which she set out to be. Comedy at night would just pay the bills. When the documentary charts her turn in a play, there's telling footage of her fixation on the reviews. Bad ones sting.

Rivers has taken to viewing her career as an actress playing a comedian. The film clearly shows her shtick has several reliable tropes: a jarring foul mouth, Nazis, celebrities, her sexuality (or lack thereof) and other self-deprecation. Still, they're still good for plenty of laughs. It's time to appreciate this ground breaker and still-great entertainer.

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4 comments about "America: Take Another Look At Joan Rivers".
  1. Barb Rogers from Casale Media, Inc. , January 20, 2011 at 1:28 p.m.

    I didn't read this much beyond the first two paragraphs. All I want to say is that Betty White is what a comedian should be. At 89, to me, she is probably the funniest woman in show business (and God bless her for being 89 and so mentally sharp!). Honestly, how can you even compare her at all to Joan Rivers? Joan Rivers, in my opinion, is not funny, offensive, and makes me immediately change the channel because I cannot look at her for long because of all of her plastic surgery!

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost , January 20, 2011 at 1:42 p.m.

    Hear, hear, David. I for one am old enough to remember when Rivers' regular stand-in for Carson was itself becoming a ritual. Quoting her pithiest barbs the next day was de rigeur. She was and is fearless and a genuine pioneer.

  3. John Grono from GAP Research , January 20, 2011 at 6:51 p.m.

    Message from downunder. I watched a Joan Rivers celeb-night (the celebs were in the audience) ... she was HYSTERICALLY funny. Can't say that about Betty White albeit her being a great comic character actor. Maybe it's just the Aussie sense of humour coming through.

  4. Gayle Taryn from the AD Club , January 25, 2011 at 10:31 a.m.

    great article, dave. all points well made and true. and given the departure of larry and regis, she's all the more valuable... it's an end of an era as the greats like joan, rickles, etc. are in their ninth decade.