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Critic's notebook

The many faces of Joan Rivers

The stand-up pioneer has spawned the next wave of female comedians

Joan Rivers, seen in her Manhattan apartment, has suffered for her art — and made art of her suffering. Joan Rivers, seen in her Manhattan apartment, has suffered for her art — and made art of her suffering. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/File)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 20, 2010

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This is a big moment for old white lady comedians. The improbable resurgence of Betty White at 88 has been a kind of national event. For at least a year she’s been stealing whatever she can — movies, television shows, “Saturday Night Live’’ sketches — from people a third her age.

Then there’s Joan Rivers, who’s 77. During one scene of live comedy in a new documentary about her career, Rivers made me laugh so hard with an unprintable rant about Viagra that I knew I was going to die. I mean it. I thought, “This is it. I’m going to spontaneously combust right here in this packed movie theater.’’

In Rivers’s case, you wouldn’t be wrong to find this a shock. She’s been the dotty gorgon of the awards-show red carpet. Plastic surgeons have sculpted her face into a mask. She hawks her jewelry collection on home-shopping channels and made that self-pitying TV movie “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story,’’ in which she and her daughter played themselves. Her Friars Club roast, even by roast standards, was a spectacle of chauvinism and molten disrespect.

But the documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,’’ which opened here on Friday, captures her in rare form — not as a joke but as a vital stand-up comedian who can still breathe fire. Rivers’s routines have made theater out of her plain looks and the meanness they inspired in both her suitors and her parents. She has suffered for her art. But like most comedians, she made art of her suffering.

The film also reminds us that Rivers is a pioneer (Joan, I’m sorry, but it’s true). Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, and Chelsea Handler are her offspring. They each practice a brand of Rivers’s off-color self-deprecation and pop-culture kamikaze attack. It would annoy Rivers to point this out, since she doesn’t always view these women as heirs (to her they’re still competition) or herself as a groundbreaker. But they represent various elements of Rivers’s career.

Rivers did stand-up comedy on the road and on variety programs in the 1960s and ’70s, then got her own late-night talk show in 1986. She was the first woman to have such a show. But that milestone seemed to cost her the second act of her career: She had spent years entertaining America as Johnny Carson’s guest host on “The Tonight Show,’’ starting in 1983. When she accepted an offer to do her own competing late-night program on Fox, Carson never spoke to her again.

Handler, who’s written three best-selling comedy books and has a late-night show on E!, “Chelsea Lately,’’ is one of only a few women to have had such a show since Rivers. (Another is Mo’Nique, whose calamitous emotional life, risqué stand-up, and shapeless BET talk show are all in the Rivers universe.)

Rivers is on the record as saying she doesn’t find Handler funny (again, she’s competition). But “Chelsea Lately’’ has at least as many moments of biting humor as Rivers’s daytime talk show, which aired in syndication from 1989 to 1994. It served as an amusing showcase for bands like the schlock-metal act Gwar and the aggrieved actress Sean Young, who once protested her not being cast as Catwoman in Tim Burton’s second “Batman’’ movie by stalking Rivers’s set in costume. Not unlike Rivers, Handler generates uncomfortable laughs by appearing to have no idea who her celebrity guests are.

Griffin’s approach to Rivers is more literal. For one thing, she’s turned her cosmetic surgeries into part of her act. For another, her comedy of self-deficiency is a perversion of Rivers’s professional ebb (Griffin’s reality show is called “My Life on the D-List’’). Rivers’s late-night Fox show lasted a year, after which she wound up floundering in the very spot that Griffin relishes: the bottom. It’s only a backhanded tribute to Rivers that Griffin’s mock-failure is the source of her success. Rivers never luxuriated on the D-list. She simply made the most of it.

If Handler has Rivers’s occasional sense of cool and Griffin is Rivers in a more antic, desperate mode, Silverman is Rivers distilled to her most essential. Silverman’s comedy is predicated on the idea that she doesn’t know she’s appalling, offensive, or even funny.

The key to the young Rivers’s survival on 1960s television was telling her jokes as if she were talking to girlfriends or a therapist. Her intent was to appear competent but not intentional. It was a shrewd way for a woman to be funny about marriage, abortion, sex, sexism, Jewishness, and manlessness: not to be too heavy or too light, but to be confessional and chagrined. Both Phyllis Diller and the great Moms Mabley did “ugly woman’’ comedy, but Rivers didn’t play ugly or garish the way they did. She adjusted the social stakes: Why can’t this nice modern girl get a date? I’m in the city, she seemed to say. Where’s my sex?

The difference between Rivers and Silverman is a matter of presentation. Silverman feigns ignorance. She whines and mumbles like a child, which heightens the surprise of what comes out of her mouth, yet allows her to seem innocent of what she saying — as if she’s just repeating what she’s overheard. Rivers has always been a showy performer. She points and makes faces and projects.

After she introduces the groundwork for a joke — the inherent ridiculousness of, say, the double standard of a woman being single — she then backs up and says, “oh oh oh!’’ and delivers the most aggravating thing about that double standard. The exclamation is part of the punch line. Silverman turns Rivers’s flamboyance inward. If her little-girl stage persona ever grew up, it would be something like Rivers.

“A Piece of Work’’ represents a kind of reversal of cultural fortune for Rivers, who, like the unstoppable Don Rickles, has never ceased performing. The film makes it impossible to see her as anything other than a smart businesswoman and comedian, as opposed to a freak. She’s still funny on her terms.

After all these decades, she refuses to play wise or geriatric. Unlike White, who remains sharp, spry, and lethally funny, Rivers wants no part of any shocking-granny shtick. Her ageless indecency is shock enough.

“I spit on virtue,’’ she said in a routine from the 1980s. If you plan on seeing her live anytime soon, bring a raincoat. She’s still spitting.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies go to www.boston.com/movienation.