“I’m hot again,” says Joan Rivers. That explains her recent guest appearance on David Letterman, after a self-described ban from late night television since the late ’80s. It’s why the current comedy issue of GQ celebrates her jokes alongside A-list comics Tracy Morgan and Zach Galifianakis. And it’s why people are approaching her on the streets of New York and treating her like a movie star—rather than a C-list TV personality. “I feel like Angelina Jolie,” quips the 77-year-old. “I want to hire six kids.”
It’s all thanks to a new, critically acclaimed documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which opens in Toronto and Montreal Aug. 13 and Vancouver Aug. 20. Two filmmakers, better known for tackling subjects like genocide and wrongful convictions, followed the hard-working comedian for just over a year, as she pounded the pavement with comedy club gigs, home-shopping-channel duties, and any reality show that would have her—all with the hopes of clawing back the career she once had.
When Johnny Carson welcomed Rivers to The Tonight Show in 1965, he told her on air she was going to be a star and even handed her the permanent guest-host position two decades later. The documentary shows a young Rivers in the ’60s at her groundbreaking best, doing stand-up while seven months pregnant, shocking audiences with abortion jokes and charmingly bantering with Jack Paar. Then, in the late ’80s, her world came crashing down after Rivers told Carson that Fox was giving her a late night show.
According to Rivers, Carson hung up on her and never talked to her again, NBC blacklisted her, the Fox show failed, her TV producer husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide, and in a move that was considered sick and tacky, Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, starred in a TV movie about that suicide.
After that, Rivers became a red-carpet joke, a warning against plastic surgery and someone whose career choices kept credibility at bay. But she kept writing jokes, each one typed up on cue cards and filed alphabetically in a massive library catalogue in her apartment, with drawers labelled by joke category: “Cooking / Tony Danza,” and “New York / No Self Worth.”
Never afraid to make fun of herself, she’s also got plenty of plastic surgery zingers. And she told Maclean’s she’s still got more work to do: “I’d like to get rid of my Hadassah hunks,” her affectionate Jewish-lady term for flabby upper arms.
The film catches up with Rivers two years ago, when she’s roasted on Comedy Central, wins the second season of Celebrity Apprentice and is a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a one-woman play about her life. For anyone who didn’t know or who forgot, the documentary proves in no uncertain terms that she has always been hilarious. And she’s getting bolder with age, trying out jokes about Michelle Obama: “She’s so chic. We used to have Jackie O, now we have Blackie O.” And Osama bin Laden: “How can we not find Osama? He’s on dialysis. There’s one outlet in all of Afghanistan, find it and follow the cord.” The film has pulled in rave reviews in an industry that gives her no respect. Although, Rivers says, it’s only because she’s the subject of the film. “I think if it said this film is directed by Joan Rivers it would have been a whole different story.” Or maybe it’s because of her age. “If you’re around long enough they say, ‘Okay, fine, let’s give her a break.’ ”
That’s not the case in those unforgiving comedy clubs where Rivers still insists on doing stand-up. But the film shows the septuagenarian commanding the stage, whether in Vegas or Wisconsin. At one gig, Rivers turns a tense moment of heckling from a father of a deaf son into an angry rant about disabilities within her own family, including a joke about a former lover: “I lived for nine years with a man with one leg. I was going to talk about what it’s like to have a man with one leg, who lost it in World War II and never went back to get it—cause that’s f–king littering.” That boyfriend died two years ago, Rivers tells Maclean’s. “And since then I’ve been footloose and fancy free.” Pun intended.