If you think you know all there is to know about Joan Rivers you ain’t seen nothing yet. Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky Sanger Rosenberg, she spent decades entertaining inside and outside the lime light, no stranger to controversy, she is a celebrated Emmy Award-winning American comedian, television personality and actress. She is frequently described as brash, loud, in your face, unapologetic and down right bad as she delivers a bevy of one-liners with her trademark thick New York accent and raw sense of today, tomorrow and yesterday. If you learn anything about Rivers’ act is that she does not hold back, ever, putting her rapier wit and cutting observations to good use as she rakes everyone from the unsightly to the celebrity over the same coals with the kind of abandon hardly equaled by anyone, anywhere. Her style relies on candor and she navigates decades with ease, moving from events days old to as far back to her earliest work in comedy clubs including The Gaslight Cafe in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York. Her material is born from her own failures, successes and excesses and fuels her one woman, uncensored, uninhibited stand up comedy tour – Uncensored, Unscripted & Unpredictable. The feeling crosses boundaries with a style that is both welcoming and off-putting like a fart joke or some other natural occurrence. Joan brought her show to the famed landmark Castro theater in San Francisco and tickets immediately sold out.
The first thing you’ll notice about Joan Rivers is that she is a consummate performer, always ready to push boundaries for a laugh, clever to the bone; she makes her appearance in an all black pant outfit capped with a flowing, sparkly red cape as if to fill the stage from the orchestra to the balcony. Laughter, cheers and a standing ovation signaled her arrival that was quickly met all at once by a curt dismissal of the attention – but you just know she lives for it. She sent us to our seats with a pat of the air and a quick ‘ah-gosh’ moment, turning to the opening band from the opening act, to inform us that she had to pay for the band for the show. She’s looking for our funny bone and sure-footed takes it into the rest of our show.
“I got to tell you something before I start the show,” she tells us, no time to catch her breath. She segues from one punch line to the next as confident as performers half her age and with less raw, nature talent. She keeps us up on our toes; there is no time for long pauses, for extended laurels. In the game of stand up comedy you’re either on your toes and boxing with every member of the audience or you’re resting back on your heels, on your way out or already gone – never sustaining the kind of calm Rivers makes look good and easy. She gives us the one-two punch and while we’re laughing, she’s moving from the opening line of jokes to the next as easily as if she’s making it up on the fly and if you didn’t know any better you’d think she was. But anyone who has seen her candid, at times brutally honest self-portrait and intimate documentary, A Piece of Work – directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, will know that she has been meticulously preparing for most of her life just to get it right – or close to it. Read my full review of ‘A Piece of Work’ here. The film is everything and more, an up-close and exacting account of the artist’s life, failures, successes and often-poor judgment for the sake of the entertainer’s life. I wrote a review of the film that you might find illuminating. The film might not make believers of the detractors but it gets very close to personal and that is about all one can hope to catch a snap of a woman who has built herself up over decades and spent nearly as long tearing herself apart, bit by bit. The thing about Joan Rivers is how easy she makes it seem like she’s entertaining the biggest house party that she won’t have to clean up afterwards – Did I mention she has a rather effective middle finger that she’s not afraid to use in mixed company?
There’s no denying that you have arrived at a Joan Rivers show because to be quite honest, there simply isn’t another entertainer with her street creds to deliver it like she does. She tells us she’s seventy-seven like she’s waiting in line at a Jewish deli and they haven’t called her number in forever, citing other aged performers like Suzanne Somers who pretends she’s younger but doesn’t have the cajones to admit she’s well past old. You don’t have to be a fan, you might not even like crass, often tasteless humor at the sake of celebrity, at the sake of the ever elusive greatest race for fame, infamy or both. However, there is no denying that Ms. Rivers knows how to work a room, how to pause and smile, how to turn frowns around and jab them into every dry eye until they wince up, tear up, or bleed. If you’ve never seen Rivers in person you owe it to yourself to feel the way she commands the very air, her sense of bravado matched only modestly by her relentless pursuit of the funny even against all expectations that a subject can be funny when so much heartache is attached. Her show at the Castro did not stray from the most recent of disasters, from the tsunami in Japan to Katrina in New Orleans, from the abomination of the Kardashian sisters to the self-importance of celebrities to attach themselves to causes and put themselves in the seat of authority of all sorts of subjects they apparently know nothing about. Rivers has seen her share of celebrities and none of them are spared from her observations – from Rosie O’Donnell to Oprah, from Cher to Kathy Griffith – she really does pull no punches.
The most enjoyable part of seeing Joan Rivers at the Castro was the immediacy of the space, her embrace of the audience from topical events to just about anything from her own personal experience to the public experience of events from the past half century. I’m sure Joan would hate that description. “Why don’t you call me a hundred,” I can hear her say. “I’m not dead yet. And besides, I’m an entertainer and yeah, thanks for letting me perform all these years and F-you while you’re at it.”