Looking Back :: Joan Rivers, 'the Anti-celebrity Celebrity'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday September 5, 2014

Editor's note: Four years ago the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work offered a piercing, honest look behind-the-scenes of the show business dynamo, who died yesterday at 81. At the time EDGE interviewed the film's director Ricki Stern about the film. It is reposted here.

What makes Joan Rivers run? Now in her mid-70s, she remains an entertainment dynamo, be it premiering an autobiographical play in London, winning Celebrity Apprentice, being roasted by Comedy Central, or crisscrossing the country for stand-up dates in such expected locales as Las Vegas and unexpected ones as a backwater resort casino in Wisconsin.

Such are some of the events chronicled in the apt-titled Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, an incisive documentary that follows a year in the life of the 75-year old comedian. It proved to be a very good year for Rivers, though it is doubtful that co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg knew that when they began their 14-month shoot some two years ago. At that point Rivers was at a low point, railing against younger comics who cite her as a pioneer (which, in Rivers' estimation, makes her irrelevant) and pointing to her greatest fear: an empty appointment book.

The documentary, which opened to glowing reviews and strong word-of-mouth, may seem an odd choice for Stern and Sundberg, whose previous work includes docs on such subjects as the the atrocities in Darfur and injustices in the American legal system. Yet between Rivers' endless quips and her curious blend of self-pity, anger and hubris, she makes an ideal subject. She can be outrageous, ("In the old days in the Kennedy era there was Jackie-O. Well, now in the Obama era there's going to be Blackie-O."). Or desperate ("I will do anything," she tells an ad agency looking to employ her. "I will knock my teeth out and do Dentasure or whatever it is. I will wear a diaper. I will do anything." ) Or reflective ("I know I'm an actress," she says. "It's all about acting. My career is an actress's career and I play a comedian. So it's over. No one will ever take me seriously as an actress.") If anything comes across about Rivers is that she's one complicated person -- a lacerating quipster with endless drive and a seeming bottomless need for attention.

EDGE caught up with Stern on a recent press tour for the film where she talked about how the film came about, how anger drives Rivers' ambition and why she laughs the longest and loudest at herself.

Anger management

EDGE: Seeing the film, it is apparent how Rivers is an ideal subject for a documentary. But what made you think she'd be?

Ricki Stern: How it came about was that I knew her, not very well, but I had connections to her. I thought she'd be an interesting subject and she proved to be. I had met her twice, but going in I was more interested not knowing that much about her history. I knew she was an early pioneer in women's comedy and paved the way for many, but I was more interested in her as an aging woman and performer. This idea of her as the quintessential performer who devotes herself to the life on the road and the stage, finding the next audience. In some ways the whole notion of the traveling performer has died away. Today there are so many other opportunities for a performer to market themselves; but when Joan was starting out, there weren't as many. We don't see people like her anymore - performers who live and die for the stage.

EDGE: One thing that's apparent while watching the film is how angry Joan is. Did you ask her about that?

Ricki Stern: Yes. I asked her about that, and she said that anger fuels the comedy. She takes anger, disappointments, judgments - anything that riles her she puts into her comedy. I did a montage of her saying, 'I hate this. I hate that,' I don't think she analyzes it this way, but you see it in her comedy. How she sees it is she's telling the truth -- that's the root of her anger. She's sick and tired and angry at people coding the truth. She just wants to tell the truth. For Joan the truth is ugly. The truth is dark, but let it out and laugh about it.

The shock factor

EDGE: She's also resentful at being put on the pedestal as a comedy pathfinder. Why do you think that's the case?

Ricki Stern: I think her fear of being put on this pedestal is that people aren't going to see her as relevant. That she is past her prime. She doesn't see herself that way at all.

EDGE: What surprised you the most about your experience filming Joan for 14 months?

Ricki Stern: I think it's how funny she really is. When you see her act, it is so fresh and so outrageous. She is so in the moment. She is so spontaneous. Things can go wrong, but she comes up with stuff She is really with it with the audience and grabs them.

Another thing that many people don't know about Joan is that she is so well-educated in the arts. She sees every play that opens and reads as many books as she can. She's a passionate person, so I thought if I explored the passion, all the other stuff would come out. The sacrifices she has made in her life. What it takes to stay in her chosen career. For me I always knew there was always a bittersweet tone to Joan's story. There's a loneliness there. Even if she has people around her, she's really in her head. She's got her daughter and her friends, and her assistants who travel with her; but in the middle night, she's by herself.

EDGE: In the film Joan says outrageous, un-PC-things, like what she says about Michele Obama calling her Blackie O. Even when you were immersed in this, did she still shock you?

Ricki Stern: You would think I would have been immune to it after awhile, but she shocked me all the time. We would be filming her stand-up and I'd look at my cameraman and our mouths would fall open and we'd say, 'I can't believe she said that.' She's always trying out new material and she always pushing the envelope. But sometime she realizes she goes to far and she pulls back from the joke. At Sundance when we premiered there was a Q&A. So she made a joke about Haiti and the audience at Sundance, well, no one laughed. So she said, 'Okay. Too soon. Too soon.' And everybody laughed.

EDGE: Joan is famous for still trying out new material in small clubs, which you show in the film. Is she still doing that every week?

Ricki Stern: Yes. On Wednesday nights. I think she's now at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York. And it is great to see her there because it is small venue, as opposed to playing Vegas and Foxwoods - those places are wonderful, but they don't have that intimacy these small clubs have. That's what she likes about these small clubs -- she can say anything and do so without fear because in these small clubs they allow her the opportunity to make mistakes. Not that Joan has much fear to begin with.

EDGE: You seem to be filming Joan 24/7, often catching her without make-up or very tired and punchy. Was there ever any issues with your filming her?

Ricki Stern: Not in the least. She really was incredibly comfortable with the camera, so much so that there was a point where her assistants would tell me that I couldn't film something, like a closed meeting. But if I really wanted it, I would go to Joan and say, we really need to be part of that meeting. It's part of the story. And she would say. Yes, it's part of the story, so come in and film it. She got what I was doing and trusted my judgment. She never closed the door. Ever.

The anti-celebrity celebrity

EDGE: You shot for 14-months and tell the story as something of her comeback? With that much footage, what got left out?

Ricki Stern: We shot about 180 hours of footage; so, yes, there was a lot of stuff there. And there were some things that didn't fall within the storyline . So there's a lot of other stuff there we weren't able to use. For instance we shot a whole thing with QVC, which was fun and funny and interesting, like how she picks her jewelry. But even though it was about her performing on QVC, It became tangential to the story we were telling.

Just spending the day with Joan you immediately realize how spontaneous and funny she is. On any given day there was enough material for a half-hour sit-com. But the film had to resonate on a deeper level. The film had to be about her passion, her drive as a performer, her age - fighting the aging, sustaining her career. All the themes in the film had to resonate on one of those levels.

EDGE: One of the most telling moments in the film occurs when Joan receives the mixed reviews for her play in London and addresses how she is never taken seriously as an actress. ("My career is an actress's career and I play a comedian," she says. "So it's over. No one will ever take me seriously as an actress.") Did you see the difference between the Joan on the stage and the offstage Joan -- that the on-stage Joan is a character she is playing?

Ricki Stern: Yes. Joan on the stage is really caustic and scary. Her role is to tame the audience. She will say anything and be mean on the stage. Like the thing in Wisconsin, when a man questions her using that Helen Keller joke because he has a deaf son. When she gets off the stage she immediately says she can't believe what happened and wrestles with two things: she knows the man's upset and she questions whether she was too hard on him by her in-the-moment response (Essentially telling him to get over it.). But on the other hand, she's saying: don't ruin my act because people are paying. So here's a moment where you see the two sides to Joan, there's the professional side, then there's the personal side. She can be relentless as the professional Joan. She says - and she says so in the film - that at the moment she was interrupted she had to get the audience back because she knew she had to make it safe for them to laugh again. She had to get control of her audience. That's what she had to do and she does it.

EDGE: Why do people make fun of her so much?

Ricki Stern: She was always wrestling with, say, if she did a Geico commercial and made fun of herself, does she loses the upper hand and give people permission to downgrade her? But that's her point -- if someone is going to make fun of her, say make fun of her plastic surgery, she says she'll be the first one to it. She's in on the joke before anyone else is in on the joke. This gives her a sense of power. But it does give others permission to make fun of her.

The funny thing about Joan is that she is the anti-celebrity celebrity. Like she goes to the red carpet and makes fun of all those dresses that the celebrities are wearing. They're so high on themselves, not like you and me. Joan sees herself as your neighbor from across the fence. That's why audiences feel so comfortable with her. That's why she's not thought of as on a pedestal and untouchable. People feel that they can make fun of her and think of her as a joke.

EDGE: I think I read somewhere where you said some reviewers appeared to review the film not on its own terms, but as a critique of Joan...

Ricki Stern: Yes. The reviews have all been very nice and strong for the film; but the weaker ones seemed to be critiquing her, not the film. They obviously do not like her and went in with that attitude. Some came out begrudgingly liking her more, and that came across in their reviews. But they made their reviews all about her, and that's not fair. It's like judging her show based on not really liking her. But she's constantly fighting. But she says every other actor is fighting. Her attitude is that the moment you've got it, everyone wants to knock you down. She knows that once you get up there, you have to stay up there.

Anything off-limits?

EDGE: Was there anything off-limits?

Ricki Stern: The only thing she was sensitive with was her off-the-cuff remarks that might be mean or hurtful to someone. Like she would say a performer is frail or aging, but realize later she didn't want that person knowing she said that. I think she is most sensitive what she said about other people. And sometimes, we'd say, come on. That's a joke. They're not going to sensitive about it. But she was afraid of hurting people's feelings.

EDGE: What was your immediate reaction when you began working with her?

Ricki Stern: Right away we knew that she is genuinely funny - spontaneously funny. You walk down the street with her and she has funny things to say. She doesn't always turn it on, like when we were out to dinner, she'll be more serious and talk politics and stuff. But she's a genuinely funny person. And she's so nice. If anyone's down to earth, it's Joan. She really doesn't put on airs. She'll talk to anybody. She'll make anybody feel comfortable. She has no snobbery. She's kind to everybody.

EDGE: Over the year of filming, Joan wins Celebrity Apprentice, which is seen in the film as a major triumph. Though she does say it wasn't as if she won an Oscar. Yet it is a turning point. It also gives you the opportunity to address her relationship with her daughter Melissa, who was also on the show...

Ricki Stern: I didn't want to use a lot of what people have already seen of Joan, such as her being on the show. For me her appearance on the show was more about her relationship with Melissa. She became the mother bear out to protect her daughter at all costs. That's what we found interesting, not the celebrity part of it. As for Melissa, she was totally fine with us being part of Joan life. Joan is her own force field and Melissa knows she does what she wants to do. Melissa was very open to give us what we wanted. They saw each other a little bit when they were doing the show, but Melissa lives in LA. When Joan goes to LA, it's usually to work, but she stays with Melissa and sees her grandson. I think we wanted to shoot a little more with Melissa, but we didn't because the movie is about Joan.

EDGE: If there's a point in Joan's story where things sour dramatically, it was when her husband Edgar unexpectedly committed suicide after the failure of her Fox Late Night series. Yet she went on to joke about it and make a made-for-television movie in which she co-starred with Melissa about his death...

Ricki Stern: She's really honest and open about it. She does this survivor lecture where she jokes about her husband's suicide. Her whole career prior to that was her relationship with her husband and her family, so when her husband committed suicide, she said that no one would listen to her joke about him anymore because he committed suicide; so I'll have to make jokes about that. So she tested the waters and eventually made jokes about her husband committing suicide and people laugh now. She has processed it a lot and it is still very emotional for her.

EDGE: Most people seem to think that on-stage Joan is the same person off-stage. Yet, as she points out, she's acting on stage. Now that she has expressed this, do you think it might be an opportunity for some enterprising producer or director to cast her in a role where she's not playing Joan Rivers, the comedian?

Ricki Stern: She would love a role. This is an opportunity for some director to come to Joan Rivers with an awesome role and give her the chance to act. She would love that. But people don't come to her with serious scripts. Someone needs to cast her in the right role.

EDGE: And what project would you like to work on next?

Ricki Stern: When I go to Provincetown for the film festival I hope to speak to John Waters. I would love to do a movie about him and tell his story. He's very sweet. I love him. I brought my daughter who is 13 to see John do his stand-up. I told him I was bringing my daughter, and he said, okay, it's going to be rough. I said, I knew. I grew up with his comedy. Half the stuff I don't think she understood. But at one point he looked at us and said. "This part is really rough. Put your hands over your ears.' When we saw him the next day, he asked her, 'did you put your hands over your ears?' And she said yes, she did. It was so cute.

Joan Rivers :: A Piece of Work is available on Netflix and DVD.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].