Joan Rivers: Exit Laughing, on PBS (review)

Can we talk?

There already just was and still is a great documentary, made just six years ago, that reminds us what it meant to be Joan Rivers. A Piece of Work.

What Rivers meant to comedians and all of us, though, that’s the point of Exit Laughing, the first documentary from the Comedy Hall of Fame that premieres tonight on PBS THIRTEEN (WNET-TV) in New York City. (Check your local listings for premieres on your PBS station)

“It was been more than a year since her passing and we felt it was important to honor Joan’s legacy,” said Jeffrey Pancer, Head Curator of the Comedy Hall of Fame. “She was critical to breaking the glass ceiling of then male-dominated stand-up comedy. In the process, she revolutionized the field as a pioneer to forge a path for the wave of female stand-ups in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond. Today women have come to define comedy in all aspects of the field. This phenomenon has become one of the biggest sea changes in modern comedy. For this reason, the Comedy Hall of Fame felt it essential to chronicle and communicate Joan’s importance for a new generation.”

Exit Laughing uses a combination of archived footage from Rivers’ interview with the Comedy Hall of Fame, new interviews with comedians the likes of Judy Gold, Lily Tomlin, Dick Cavett, Don Rickles, Kathy Griffin, Whitney Cummings, Jeff Ross, Marlo Thomas, Mario Cantone and Sarah Silverman, and some great rarely seen stand-up from the short-lived daytime talk show Rivers hosted in the late 1960s.

Silverman said Rivers “changed everything for women in comedy.” Griffin, whose life and career most resembles a next-generation Rivers, said how amazing it was that Rivers managed to get “even edgier” as she aged, not only persevering but thriving. What Griffin learned from Rivers? “If I think it’s funny, I’m going to say it. You let me know if you agree or not, but I’m going to say it.”

On The Jack Paar Program in the early 1960s, Paar introduced Rivers to primetime TV audiences nationwide: “Probably the hottest new discovery of the year is a young Barnard College graduate named Joan Rivers.”

Of course, ’twas her first appearance in 1965 in late-night on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which she reveals took her eight auditions and a word from substitute host Bill Cosby to get her on the show, wherein Carson declared Rivers would be a big star. And she was. Interviews with three generations of comedians testify to how much Rivers loved her work, how much she loved other comedians, and how much she kept at it all the way from The Bitter End to her bittersweet end, unexpected but perhaps not as shocking to her. Right up until that day, Rivers kept current, kept getting back onstage to stay competitive with comedians of all ages.

Vine. Instagram. Webseries. Reality TV. Plus red carpets and stand-up shows. Rivers was still doing it all.

“No one reinvented themselves better, and more often, than Joan,” Gold said.

“There’s no level of achievement,” Rivers said. “It’s a struggle every day. It’s quicksand. If you don’t keep reinventing yourself, you’re gone. I never think of it. I’m always just looking for another door to go through.”

And looking to keep the door open for the comedians behind her to follow.

When Gottfried got into trouble for jokes that his employers felt crossed the line, he said Rivers defended him. “They’re supposed to look at bad situations and find comedy,” he remembers her saying. “That’s how you go through life. You laugh at bad things.”

For someone who often used to chastise her audiences if they groaned at her punchlines with “Oh, grow up!”, Rivers did have one hard and fast principle she stood by.

“Yes, I do have rules,” Rivers told the Comedy Hall of Fame. “And the one rule: They came to see me. Try to make them have a good time. I have many friends that say, and I’m not going to name names. ‘I try five minutes, they don’t like me, I go on automatic.’ I will tap-dance on my ears for you because you’ve come to see me.”

Rivers said she had one influence, seeing Lenny Bruce in high school. Three decades after her best-selling memoir, “Enter Talking,” Rivers left us laughing, and hundreds of comedians still talking and looking up to her.

Joan Rivers: Exit Laughing premieres tonight on THIRTEEN.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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