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The Schmooze

Five Ways of Looking at Joan Rivers

1. “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”

There’s something strange about Joan River’s Internet talk show, “In Bed with Joan.” Maybe it’s strange that the show exists, or maybe it’s strange how seriously Joan takes the web series — that she earnestly seems to believe it will lead to a new period of fame and critical acceptance. As if we aren’t already living in that new period, and that “In Bed with Joan” is only possible because she’s back on top as a comic legend, even a national treasure. Or maybe it’s just the wallpaper and duvet.

Image by Getty Images

“In Bed with Joan” is filmed in a basement bedroom of Melissa Rivers’s house in Malibu. The laundry room doubles as a green room. Joan introduces her guests by asking them to come out of her closet, then invites them to lie down next to her on her full-size bed.

But they also lie under a reddish-orange sign that reads “In Bed with Joan,” next to french doors with a nighttime “view” of the New York skyline. In the second episode, Nick Kroll asked if the view is of the South Street Seaport, which would place the “studio” somewhere in the New York harbor.

On the first episode, Sarah Silverman repeatedly insulted the set, saying how depressing it was to be there and to discover that hosting an Internet talk show in your daughter’s basement was “making it.” You can’t quite decide if Silverman is joking, maybe because Silverman can’t decide if Joan is joking, if the aesthetics of the show — the weird incongruity between the actual bed, the massive sign, the fake New York skyline, and the audience of three-to-four people perched on the steps — are all one big joke. As Melissa Rivers put it, “It’s a terrible set, not a terrible room.”

Everything that’s strange about “In Bed with Joan,” starts with that room. Joan Rivers has decided to make a low-budget online talk show, but Joan Rivers cannot make a low-budget online talk show. She cannot admit that the show is filmed in a Malibu basement; she has to pretend that it’s produced in glamorous New York City. She isn’t content to film conversations with friends or comics, like Jerry Seinfeld does on his web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Joan Rivers needs to have a team of writers help her compose jokes and formal interview questions. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be something larger than it really is. Joan Rivers needs “In Bed with Joan” to be a full-size Talk Show, maybe to continue making up for a creative failure that she’s long since made-up for, one that few people remember. Maybe she does it because few people remember.

2. What Louis C.K. (and America) loves about Joan Rivers

Has anyone ever benefitted from a documentary as much as Joan Rivers? Joan Rivers was a pathbreaking stand-up during the 1960s and ’70s, the comic vanguard of the change in women’s roles and the sexual revolution. Joan Rivers practically invented red carpet coverage in the 1990s. She found a way to make walking into theaters and event halls captivating television by celebrating Hollywood’s self-seriousness and simultaneously ripping it to shreds. The funniest part of her red carpet reporting was always the concept: Behind every barbed question and insult was the amused amazement that Hollywood thinks having multiple correspondents grill guests and presenters on every aspect of their appearance is perfectly reasonable.

But by the early 2000s, the red carpet personality was the only thing people seemed to know about Joan Rivers. Her biting humor was reduced to scattered celebrity insults. E! dropped her red carpet show and she faded away. She still made sporadic appearances on reality shows like “Celebrity Family Feud” but this only reinforced the idea that Joan Rivers was washed up.

The genius of the documentary,“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” (2010) is that it took all the schlocky, cheesy things about Rivers — her appearance on “Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack,” the QVC jewelry line, her post-E! red carpet show on the TV Guide Channel, and the vulgar, unimaginative Comedy Central Roast — and reinterpreted them as a dedication to the craft of comedy and a drive to succeed that we forget celebrities must have.

Louis C.K. canonized this image of Joan on the second season of FX’s “Louie.” Louie bombs a performance in the small comedy club of an Atlantic City casino and asks to be released from his contract. While he is preparing to leave, he sees that Joan Rivers is performing in the main theater of the casino. He goes to meet her backstage and the two talk. She invites him to her room for drinks, and the two muse about life on the road and the struggles of the working comic. More accurately, Joan berates Louie. Comedy is an up-and-down business, she tells him, you have to be good to everyone and honor every commitment. One day you’re in the small comedy room, the next day the theater, the next day bankrupt. This isn’t a job, Joan tells Louie in a moment of serious-toned “honesty.” It’s a calling.

That’s when Louie lunges across the couch, kisses Joan, and falls on top of her. She’s angry and disgusted, but decides to sleep with Louie anyway. She warns him not to tell anyone because “nobody likes necrophiliacs.” The confessional voice is dropped; she’s back to being JOAN RIVERS.

What’s truly remarkable about this scene is the way it works on at least three levels: as “Harold and Maude” odd-romantic comedy; as an expression of Louis’s personal admiration for Joan; and as a metaphor for America’s love affair with Joan. Louie’s desire to sleep with her after discovering that she’s a vulnerable master craftsman perfectly captures the post-documentary swerve in attitude. The indelible, jaw-drop moment of the documentary was the revelation that Joan keeps an archive of every joke she’s ever written on index cards. She documents every step and misstep to learn from them. We’ll happily listen to crude jokes about necrophilia when we see them as the result of hours of labor and imagine that they mask a serious, private place.

What America loves about Joan Rivers, the revolutionary, aggressive, unapologetically Jewish comedienne, is her Protestant work ethic.

3. “You never get frozen yogurt together at Neiman Marcus?”

Here’s the worst kind of Joan Rivers’ joke: “I also hate ugly brides. I went to one wedding where the bride was so hideous I heard her mother whisper to the groom, ‘Don’t be a schmuck. Take the maid of honor. It’s not too late.’” (From “I Hate Everyone….Starting with Me”)

Here’s the best kind of Joan Rivers’ joke: “A flying saucer has never landed on a Jewish lawn because we would turn it over to see who made it.” (From “What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most”)

There isn’t much difference between the two jokes, but the little there is has an outsized effect. Both are based on well-worn concepts: that ugly people are subhuman and that Jews are cheap and money-conscious.

But the second joke deftly uses the double meaning of saucer to surprise us. We understand the joke immediately because the premise is so familiar. We laugh because we were never expecting to get there.

Joan Rivers is a comedian who thinks in jokes. When Sarah Silverman tells her on “In Bed with Joan” that she has trouble spending time with regular, unfunny people, Joan says, without a pause, “I guess you never hang out with Jay Leno.” Silverman’s face is priceless: she’s amused, clearly, but also surprised that Joan went there. Or maybe it’s better to say that Silverman was surprised that Joan was able to get there so fast, that she heard a factual statement and immediately stuck a punchline on the end.

Yet Joan was able to get there so fast because Sarah moved into Joan’s comfort zone. Joan Rivers is actually an extremely conservative comedian. She tells fat jokes, jokes about the differences between men and women, and jokes about ugly children. She keeps making jokes about how unfunny Dane Cook is — and Jay Leno. What Joan Rivers does, what people love — and love to hate — about Joan Rivers is her unparalleled ability to put the nasty edge on the well-worn: “I hate the Tony Awards show. I can’t get booked anywhere that night because every gay man in the world is at the f*cking Tonys.”

But there’s also a less jokey side of Joan that comes out with the right partner, and that explains her existential need for a Talk Show. With the right partner, Joan becomes a brilliant conceptual comedian. When Sarah Silverman tells her about people stealing her jokes, Joan says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Louis C.K. were stealing jokes?” She explains: “Everyone thinks he’s so brilliant.” You can see Joan’s mind start to spin, to see if she can turn this into a bit. You can see how much she loves finding the joke within the idea.

Silverman retreats but Nick Kroll plays along. Kroll comes from the world of improv where performers are urged to have a “Yes. AND…” mentality, to take the premise and run with it. The two of them talk about Woody Allen and whether he won an Oscar this year. Joan says she’ll call Soon Yi to ask.

Nick Kroll: Are you guys close, do you play tennis?
Joan Rivers: Very close. But she always wears yellow and I say to her ‘too matchy-matchy” and then they don’t call me for a while.
Nick Kroll: You never get frozen yogurt with her at Neiman Marcus?
Joan Rivers: Is that what she does?
Nick Kroll: In my mind that’s what you guys would do.

There’s a beautiful rhythm to their conversation. Again Joan makes a tired Asian joke, but she almost redeems it by turning it back on herself, making it about her own insensitivity, about her own inability to refrain from insulting her friends. Still we know that the whole thing is a bit-in-embryo after Kroll’s Neiman Marcus comment. Joan’s “Is that what she does” admits that she doesn’t know Soon Yi well.

Kroll’s follow-up is really a meta-statement on the nature of comedy and art. What draws people like Rivers and Kroll into comedy and improv is this ability to build castles out of words, to construct a universe that’s fully inhabited, textured and realized in the span of sentences, and then to let it go, dissipate, fade into air. This conceptual part of Joan Rivers is always fighting with the joke-teller, always looking for the right way to release itself. It’s this fight between the two that continues to draw us back to her when we’re ready to look away. Something new is always about to happen. And, more amazing, she’ll find a way to make the something new feel like it’s been with us the entire time.

4. A Requiem for Joan and Johnny

There are three parts to a Late Night Talk Show: monologue, the comedy segment delivered from the desk, and the interviews with guests.

There are three parts to Joan Rivers’s 2013 career: stand-up, “Fashion Police” and “In Bed with Joan.”

You can’t overstate the symmetry. Since the mid-1980s (at least), Joan Rivers has dreamed of a successful Late Night Talk Show. She was the permanent guest host of “The Tonight Show” in the early 1980s, then left to start “The Late Show With Joan Rivers” on Fox when she felt unappreciated. According to some versions of the story, an NBC memo had leaked about possible Carson replacements and Joan Rivers’s name was not on the list. In other versions, Joan had received no contract renewal from the Carson people and left because of the lack of job security. One element is consistent in all versions: whether because he felt betrayed, or whether because he took a with-us-or-against-us mentality, Carson never talked to her again.

In retrospect, it was clear that “The Late Show With Joan Rivers” was never going to succeed. Fox was a brand new network without the resources to support her. More importantly, Joan ran away from herself, and became someone she wasn’t. Joan lives for stand-up, but she went without an opening monologue on the first episode. She lives to tell jokes, but she awkwardly tried to integrate a Letterman-style remote segment into the pilot. This wasn’t the Joan Rivers from “The Tonight Show.”

Close to 30 years later, Joan is still hurt by her break with Johnny. On the first episode of “In Bed with Joan,” she asked Sarah Silverman, “Don’t you remember who didn’t use you?” It’s the snubs that still motivate her to succeed. But the break with Carson shadows everything else. She had her own daytime Talk Show in the 1990s, “The Joan Rivers Show,” and she even won an Emmy for it, but still she needs to have “In Bed with Joan.” She still needs to prove Carson wrong.

On the penultimate episode of the third season of “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” Joan has a cancer scare. While they wait anxiously for results of a CT scan, Joan and one of her writers go over her bucket list. “I would like to dance on Johnny Carson’s grave,” she tells him. “I just want to say to him. ‘See. See. Look at me at this age. I’ve got ‘Fashion Police.’ I’ve got a hit show, you ass!’”

And then, because this is a reality show, and because Joan Rivers is who she is, they go. Carson was cremated, but there’s a shrine to him at a public park in Burbank, Calif.. Once there, Joan tries to insult him, but instead she breaks down. She has her friend buy flowers to lay at the monument. She sits down next to him, as if she were on the couch on the Carson show. She expresses her anger, and confusion. “For 20 years you wouldn’t talk to me, because I left the show?”

It’s hard to know what to make of this moment. Who is Joan talking to? Herself? Carson? Her friend? The audience at home? Is this a public performance? If so, is this any different than writing a memoir? It’s true that some of the genuineness of the moment is diluted by the camera and by knowing that we are watching a show where things like this are supposed to happen, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. Joan Rivers has lived in public for the last 40 years. She’s always been open about her life. Her assistants won’t joke with her about her potential cancer. They shudder whenever Joan makes a joke about wanting to gorge herself before she dies. “Karen Carpenter died thin. It’s already been done.” Laughing through the tears, using humor to escape misfortune and to soothe others, is what she’s always done. The visit to Carson’s monument is like an appearance on Katie Couric, or the quiet moment of serious discussion with Louis C.K.: it’s the moment where you let the audience in on the motivation for, and background to, the joke you are about to tell. It’s a set-up, part of the act. Which is not to say that it’s dishonest or misleading. The hurt is as real as the punchline that follows.

5. “The Tonight Show Starring Joan Rivers”

Whether the aesthetics of “In Bed with Joan” are intentionally incongruous, or, more likely, they’re the result of Joan’s ambitions not matching the reality of the format, they add to the show, and make it more engaging than it otherwise would be. The prewritten jokes and cue cards to keep her on topic hint at everything a “Tonight Show With Joan Rivers” could have been. Joan Rivers wouldn’t have hosted a deconstructed version of “The Tonight Show.” She wasn’t David Letterman, Conan O’Brien or Scott Aukerman: remote bits, insult shouting dogs, and guests playing caricatures of themselves isn’t what Joan Rivers is or was about. Carson, like Joan, was a joke-telling comic, someone earnest enough to lure middle-America, but with a nasty side. Strangely, the strangeness of “In Bed with Joan” only drives home the point that she was Carson’s real heir. Her version of “The Tonight Show” would have been the closest to his.

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