Behind the scenes with Joan Rivers 

After exploring the genocide in Darfur with “The Devil Came on Horseback” (2007) and contemplating our nation’s perceived flirtation with fascism in “The End of America” (2008), you can’t blame filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg for needing a little comic relief.

They found it, and their latest documentary, in Joan Rivers, who, at 77, remains one of the hardest-working comedians in the business. Last year, she starred in (and won) the second season of NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice.” She sells jewelry on cable TV. She performs more than 200 stand-up gigs each year. And she is front and center in the fascinating “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”

“Annie and I were interested in doing something on female comedians,” says Stern, who knew Rivers indirectly through her mother. “Joan is groundbreaking, someone who paved the way for women in a profession largely dominated by men, and she has sacrificed so much of her life to be a performer.”

“What she’s really done is find ways to bring her humor into the different zeitgeist that is now,” adds Sundberg, who has been working with Stern since 1993. “She has this incredible connection with the gay community, and part of it is because she puts the truth right out there. She’s very self-deprecating, and she opens up about her own life. She finds ways to stay relevant.”

Rivers says she agreed to spend a year of her life with Stern and Sundberg because they assured her the resulting documentary would not be a puff piece. (“I hate those Biography Channel movies where all your friends say nice things about you!”) She also suspected, she says half-jokingly, that the filmmakers were expecting to capture her last year alive.

Despite her reputation as a trailblazer, both for her candid, caustic comedy and for inspiring next-generation performers like Kathy Griffin and Lisa Lampanelli, Rivers bristles at the notion that she’s worked to stay relevant.

“Relevant? I guess that means, ‘Oh, she did a Tiger Woods joke.’ Of course I’m relevant. I talk about what’s going on. But I don’t work to reinvent myself. I’m not doing the routines I did on Johnny Carson. Most of my audience wasn’t even alive when Johnny was on the air.”

And she has no patience with the notion she’s in a male-dominated business. “It’s whoever’s funny,” she says. “If my dog had six great ­minutes, he’d be a headliner. It’s a male profession, not male-­dominated. That’s a great excuse for not-funny women. But if you’re a woman and you’re funny, you’re going to get through, so shut up.”

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers
Directed by Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
Rated R
Running time 1 hour 24 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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