As a Hollywood survivor, Joan Rivers seems more desperate than ever for the gossip shows and cameos that have sustained her career, especially with the success of documentaries like 2010’s excellent A Piece of Work or her surprisingly raw, funny guest spots on zeitgeist-y TV shows like Louie.
So it’s a little odd and perhaps even downright shameful that this pioneering female standup and pop-culture fixture was apparently sent a cease and desist letter last year by Showtime demanding she stop promoting her Don’t Start With Me special (presumably because they felt she was over-promoting it? It’s hard to say, since Showtime never went on record). If you’ve seen this 79-year-old firecracker in person, you know that Showtime was picking a fight it couldn’t win. Rivers is a self-professed media whore who would do just about anything to get the word out about a new project. Granting her an hour-long special is practically an invitation for over-promotion.
The truth is that Don’t Start With Me deserves every piece of press it can get. It’s the kind of career-summing statement that justifies Rivers’s fame and possibly even explains to newcomers why she’s been in the limelight for the better part of 50 years.
Taped in March 2012 at the Arcada Theatre outside Chicago, Don’t Start With Me opens with a bit of backstage footage and some visual gags (Rivers snorting a line of Lipitor, pushing up her boobs, etc.) before she takes the stage against a fake big-band backdrop and live musical trio. Her asides quickly cut through the gaudy, plastic stiffness, as when she complains about a tropical vacation with her grandson. “$250 to swim with a fuckin’ shark?!” she screams. “I went over to the fattest woman I could find and I said, ‘I hope you have your period!’”
Like a cross between Don Rickles and Lisa Lampanelli, Rivers’s insult-comic persona puts her audience directly in the crosshairs with nary an acknowledgement of how cruel it may sound to the uninitiated. Gays, ethic minorities, the obese, the blind and even Mother Theresa get the shaft. But part of what has kept Rivers going is her ability to tune her act to the times. Her performance stamina is impressive for any age, but she can truly out-shock any shock comic with her material, which deals as breezily with child molestation as it does with Anne Frank’s defiled corpse.
The conceit of Rivers’s current live set is that she’s dispensing with the undesirables in the audience so she can begin her “real” act. And then – surprise surprise – her time time is up and she never really got to her act, having spent the whole time complaining about “the fatties and the thinnies,” the Mexicans and the Chinese. Much of the humor lies not just in the calloused delivery, but the speed with which she attacks her targets. She’ll climb over any and every mountain to get to a punchline, and her focus is so intense it’s both scary and awesome.
Like Amy Schumer, Anthony Jeselnik and other harsh, young comics, it’s also a carefully constructed persona, which is why Rivers’s shows aren’t being picketed by every civil-rights group in the country. Or, as she says at the beginning of the special, “Just lighten the fuck up. These are just jokes, you assholes!” Rivers’s ferocity is far from accidental, and it’s about time more people recognized what a force of nature this woman has become on stage.