“I don’t want to retire. I don’t want to sit in the sun. I don’t want to learn to garden. I paint. Who gives a shit.”
Last night to honor the passing of Joan Rivers, I re-watched the touching 2010 documentary about her life and career, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Given the context of the viewing, it was even more heartbreaking the second time around. For a woman who had gone ‘under the knife’ so often, it seemed particularly tragic and sad that she had died, seemingly still full of vim and vigor, from such a relatively simple medical procedure.
I think most people of my generation and the generations after only associate Rivers with the later half of her career, when her caustic fashion-policing and grating turns on reality TV shows like Celebrity Apprentice positioned her as this kind of manic, slightly freakish, aging, and desperate comedian.
That’s why this movie is so enlightening, it gives you a glimpse of her golden years and shines a light on the darker insecurities that fueled her style of humor and relentless work ethic. Before she was on the red carpet, or winning over Donald Trump, or headlining shows at depressing Midwest casinos, Rivers truly was a game-changer. When she emerged on the scene in the mid-60s, in appearances on The Tonight Show with brand new host Johnny Carson, she joked frankly and freely about sex and abortion, topics people still get squeamish about to this day. Carson loved her style and nurtured her career – she became his permanent guest host in the early 80s.
But for all the early love and admiration, her career seemed destined for tragedy and pain. When she accepted an offer to host her own late night talk show on then newcomer FOX’s network, Carson was furious. He had her blacklisted from Late Night and never spoke to her again, for the rest of his life. Rattled by the loss of her mentor, Rivers lost her confidence and the show foundered. FOX asked her to fire her producer, her own husband Edgar Rosenberg. She refused, was fired herself, and the show was cancelled. Rosenberg committed suicide shortly after because he was allegedly so distraught over the whole episode. (Clinical depression didn’t help matters.)
The thing you take away from the movie is that Rivers has been fighting her entire life. Against critics and sexists, against the mainstream, and her own negative self-image, against people who said she should just stop working already and learn to garden. But she can’t. She needs to work, to entertain. The thought of giving it up is never an option. Driven by passion, by compulsion, you know at the end of the film that she’ll never, ever stop.