Our Dorothy Parker: Joan Rivers in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”

As you might expect of a good documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work connects you with its subject on a human level, exposes her vulnerabilities, gives you insight into what drives her. But it also does something that may be even more important than that. It makes you laugh your ass off.

A realization begins to take hold as we follow Rivers through a year of her life, and see archival material of television appearances going back to her beginnings: Joan Rivers is one of the great wits of our time. Dorothy Parker wrote poems, stories and criticism for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and delivered bon mots to Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott at the Algonquin Round Table, while Joan Rivers works on nightclub stages and television talk shows; Dorothy Parker was constrained (in her work at least) to be more lady-like while Joan Rivers lives in a time that requires her to be more frankly ribald; but they have more in common than separates them. In the film there’s a clip from a television appearance with Johnny Carson in which Joan, by way of unacknowledged homage, updates Parker’s famous “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” in a way that’s every bit as true, as epigrammatic, and as concentratedly witty. I won’t spoil the line for you (one of this film’s great pleasures is rediscovering Rivers’ ability to craft observations that have the power to level you in an economical eleven or twelve words), but suffice it to say that Carson is so surprised by it that he has to jerk back and turn away from Rivers and the audience so as not to lose control of himself.

Barnard-educated, this smart Jewish girl (Parker, incidentally, was half-Jewish, and more covertly) has been delighting our minds for almost fifty years now. Some of the laughs in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work come from lines that Joan delivers in the public appearances the film documents, but many are from remarks she tosses off as we follow her through her days. (She’s always working, even when she’s not. One of the inspiring messages of the film is that “always working” is as good a prescription for happiness as any of us is likely to find.) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work has the potential to cause a general re-appreciation of Joan Rivers, an awareness that she is not just a comic but a wit who is the rightful heir to Parker in her mining of the territory of loneliness, possessed of a comparable talent and deserving of the same respect from the culture. I suspect that Rivers knows this and that it’s one reason she agreed to let the filmmakers in her life. The bottom line is that as emotionally connected to Joan Rivers as this documentary made me feel (and it did), I laughed out loud during it more than at any comedy I’ve seen at the movies in the last five years. I was not alone.


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