Joan Rivers largely comes across as introspective and modest in the late-in-life interview at the heart of a new documentary about her career airing Friday on PBS. But the comedian's trademark fiery persona flares when "Joan Rivers: Exit Laughing" turns to the subject of her politically correct critics.
"Morons have invaded our world," she declares.
It's natural, if folly, to muse about what Rivers, who died in 2014 at age 81, might have said about the political rise of a figure with an equal disdain for the politically correct, if not necessarily a shared conception of the term's meaning.
But one lesson from "Exit Laughing" is that Rivers likely would have tackled her old "Celebrity Apprentice" boss Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as she always approached her act: by speaking her mind, determined to get the biggest laugh possible, no matter what the potential fallout.
Rivers, in a sense, offers her own epitaph in the documentary, which also features interviews with peers (Lily Tomlin, Don Rickles and Dick Cavett, among them) and acolytes (including Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and Whitney Cummings).
Unlike the brilliant and intense 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which explored her tragedies, triumphs and the insecurities that relentlessly drove the comedic barrier-smasher, the gentler and winning "Exit Laughing" focuses primarily on her influence.
This is not a pure Rivers biography. Sure, Johnny Carson plays a prominent role, but only as the man who gave Rivers her big break – not as the enemy created for life when she mounted a rival show on Fox in 1986. The suicide of her husband Edgar Rosenberg isn't delved into, nor are the circumstances of her own death.
The closest we get to the self-deprecating Rivers’ internal demons is her poignant defense against those who slammed her for joking about the likes of the Holocaust and 9/11. "Anything I that can't bear to think about, anything that I really I cannot face in a serious way, I go right to comedy," she said.
Clips and commentary paint a picture of Rivers as a brash, fearless, tenacious and unapologetic comedy pioneer – and, ultimately, a resilient queen of reinvention. The younger comics, in particular, seem in awe of both her off-stage generosity and an on-stage prowess that only grew with age. "She had better material than anybody," Jeff Ross said of Rivers’ rebuttal to her 2009 roasting on Comedy Central.
It’s fitting, in a way, that Rivers gets her final word in a documentary produced by the Comedy Hall of Fame and broadcast on PBS, the longtime home of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor special. She never made it to that stage as an honoree as stand-up contemporaries, including Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and those she helped pave the way for, including Tina Fey and Ellen DeGeneres, got the award.
Rivers seemed more at home getting skewered by fellow comics. In her Comedy Central roast rejoinder, she joked about deciding not to retire after seeing the caliber of comics who insulted her – and she uttered a phrase that rings true today: "Comedy needs me."
Check out a promo below. Note the video contains mild expletitves:
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.