I've watched two documentaries on comedians lately: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Both are strikingly similar in that they follow two stand-up personalities as they attempt to claw their way back into stardom - and, accordingly, cultural relevance. Throughout the course of both films, Joan and Conan also reveal wildly unexpected offstage personalities, touching/strained dependencies on assistants-turned-family, and dogged work ethics that quite literally left me feeling exhausted on my couch just from watching.
The reason I'm writing is that I've always been a huge Conan fan, and I've always thought of Joan as that semi-funny bitch on the red carpet with all the plastic surgery. And that's pretty much where my opinion of her ended. If I wanted snark, I had Kathy Griffin.
Fast-forward to the present. I still think Conan's great: stellar onstage presence, deliriously absurd (yet intelligent) bits, and a willingness to make a complete ass of himself - and half of rural America - through preposterous prerecorded segments. I won tickets to see him live during my summer in LA, and he was just as charismatic in person. The problem with his documentary, though, is that it bares completely the unpleasant, real version of Conan. He's a dick to his staff, he makes an uncomfortable level of fun of Jack McBrayer during a backstage visit (seriously... I was fidgeting and almost unable to look at Jack's upset face), and he goes on and on about how much he hates personal encounters with fans, despite needing their adoring presence to survive as a performer. Its a hypocritical, stodgy, honest portrayal of a guy who I wanted no choice but to love, and now that I have a choice, I'm not sure I'm so into it anymore.
Joan, on the other hand, came out of nowhere like some whirling dervish - all fists and elbows and attitude. As I said earlier, the annual Academy Awards had turned her, in my mind, into some red-carpet bitch. A well-edited trailer for her documentary was really the only thing that drew me in. Well, that and boredom.
Turns out, the lady's fucking hilarious. And I say "fucking" here because she's also the most profane 75-year-old woman I've encountered. Watch as Joan spends a year jetting from one run-down venue to another, desperate to entertain and willing to do literally *anything* to keep people laughing. The difference in personality between her and Conan is astounding: while both are on their "last leg," Joan's approach is to appreciate everything. No fan is too unimportant, no venue too tiny. She gets by on just a few hours of sleep a night between cross-country flights to increasingly desolate middles of nowhere, and the downtime she does have is spent awash in self-doubt, an agonized appreciation of the little she's perceived herself of achieving, and a desire to ensure everyone everywhere knows how much she appreciates their presence. It's a polar opposite approach to the entertainment business, and while a lot of it may have to do with Ms. Rivers' reluctance to fade into the obscurity of old age, she remains charming.
Maybe I'm just getting gayer, but I think I'm more into Joan. Her rich history in show business, her wall of joke files (seriously astounding), and the fact that within 15 minutes her personality had triumphed over the strange wreck that is her face all have me rooting for her continued floundering, if not downright success. Conan, however, can suck it. I've seen what he thinks of fans like me.