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In 2010 I saw the Joan Rivers documentary, A Piece of Work. I was curious to learn what made her tick. I always admired her comedic posture, like a journeyman boxer who takes and delivers gut punches night after night. She never seemed to take it for granted and always seemed to be hard at work, like she was just starting out. It’s the kind of tenacity that many performers eventually shed — due to everything from failure, increased comfort, or great success.
Comedy, as far as I have seen, is one of the roughest rooms of entertainment. There are a lot of funny people out there, they all want to be big, they can be very assertive, and most of them are men. And then there was Joan Rivers, who had some allies but was for the most part on her own, slugging it out.
A Piece of Work has some great moments from early in her career. Damn, does she push it. What she got away with on television in those days is guts personified. Culturally, this had to happen and who better to break it into pieces than Joan Rivers. To be able to reference abortion on the national airwaves, that could lose you your future but she went for it, told the truth, and got a laugh.
Watching A Piece of Work, I was struck over and over at how raw and real she kept it decade after decade. When her career was at one of its greatest peaks, her obvious talent seen by millions through her relationship with Johnny Carson, she got her own television show. Somehow feeling betrayed, Carson never spoke to her again. This now famous break was understandably devastating for her. She had no choice but to pick herself up and keep going.
Because of her brutal honesty, there are so many moments in A Piece of Work that should be sewn into the DNA of anyone who seeks to pursue a career in any part of the entertainment world. Rarely does anyone show vulnerability in that business, but she did, and it’s a lesson in how tough you have to be sometimes.
Rejection is hard for anyone, no matter how thick the skin. The truth is that no one’s skin is all that thick, and anyone can get got to. There are a rare and extremely talented few at the very top who don’t hear “no” all that often, but for everyone else in the business, it’s constant enough to give you a condition. Joan Rivers puts all that right out front and makes you feel the hurt. At one point in A Piece of Work, she and her assistant read out loud all the less-than-favorable reviews of her one woman show. She takes the punches and gets on to the next thing. To be able to do that requires a few times of not being able to. That is, as they say, the real stuff.
Early in the documentary, she shows her greatest fear — an empty month planner. She just lays it out with no hesitation. She is terrified of no one wanting her. This is beyond money, career, legacy, this is what propels her. It was so inspiring to see someone who at that point in her life had nothing to prove to anyone; at 75 she was still hungry, still after it. What exactly was the “it” that she was after? I think she liked having an audience and making them laugh. The next morning, there is no laughter, so you have to go find another room and fill it back up again. If what you relentlessly seek is also that which compels you to strive, there will be only small instances of satisfaction, the rest is unceasing energy and constant movement. It’s like being addicted to a drink that makes you thirsty.
To watch her performances, from the early ones to the later ones, there is a high caloric burn continuum and a great level of brilliant comedic discomfort as she delivers heavy doses of ferocious honesty, like the world was ending and she might as well just tell it to you straight. It reminds me of some of George Carlin’s later work, where his level of confrontational truth was so unapologetically pure that was at times, unnerving. He was right, of course but that didn’t always make it easy to handle.
Rarely does someone have to be so continually courageous as a matter of course in their job. This is usually reserved for firefighters and others who routinely put their lives on the line. Those who go onstage face a live audience and other uncontrollable factors, many detrimental to a good show. It can be at times more rewarding than you can imagine, to where things are so good, you expect to get hit by lightning or a streetcar. But then there are all the other times when it’s just extremely difficult.
Joan Rivers’ audiences had the best possible deal and they knew it. She needed them more than they needed her. This is as it should be. It is a crazy relationship that is hard to explain, but that’s it. If they stop coming, you’re done. So you hope like hell they don’t stop, but at the same time you know that there is a chance they will. The fear of that ultimate heartbreak is as big as your life. The one thing you want the most is the thing you would be foolish to depend on.
Some performers “make it look easy” when they do their thing. That in itself is difficult. Joan Rivers never made it look easy. She made it look like what it actually is—really fucking hard. This is why she is a champion.
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