In what must be one of the most peculiar assertions ever made by a major philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead once told an interlocutor that his only problem with the Jews was their lack of humor. Lack of humor?! Must have been those Anglo-Jewish academics he hung out with.
It would be wrong to say that the Jews invented stand-up comedy, although the badkhn (wedding jester) may well be the first stand-up (and a forerunner of rap, to boot), but surely we have contributed mightily to this particular mode of performance art, beginning in the 20th century. One could list the Jewish stand-ups from vaudeville to the present as a unbroken line running from Weber and Fields through Jack Benny and Burns and Allen to Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Robert Klein and so on.
Inevitably, such a list would include Joan Rivers, who is the subject of a new documentary that opens June 11. As Kathy Griffin points out in the film, Rivers was one of a tiny handful of women who kicked down doors to get on stage and on screen. And, with her conquest of “The Tonight Show” in the ‘60s, Rivers probably did more than any other to keep those doors open to women comics.
Of course, that is part of the story told by “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (an unlikely project for the co-directors of “The Devil Came on Horseback,” a memorable documentary about Darfur). But the focus of their film is more on Rivers as she is today, a 75-year-old woman fighting, biting and scratching to continue plying her trade. On stage, she is raucous, profane and frequently strident. Also, brutally honest and very, very funny. Off-stage, Rivers is someone who lives to work, who seems utterly lost when not in motion, a person hiding and hugging a core of deep sadness and anger. As she admits herself, “If I wasn’t angry, I wouldn’t do comedy.”
Yet she repeatedly asserts to the filmmakers that she considers herself an actress, not a comic. “I play a comedienne,” she says defiantly. Over the course of the year in which the film was shot, we see her take that notion to its logical extreme, road-testing a play about her life at the Edinburgh Festival and in London. The mixed reviews in London scuttled the project, but you can feel Rivers’ intensity and commitment as both writer and star. She’s been doing this since 1966, more than 40 years she proudly announces, and she isn’t going quietly. Then, she never has.
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, opens June 11 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave. at West Third Street). For information, go to www.ifccenter.com.
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.