Joan Rivers is the toughest woman in American showbusiness. At 69, the doyenne of women's comedy still comes on like a thermo-nuclear attack. Recently she's been taking a new stand up routine on the road: her short stay at the Haymarket Theatre in London was acclaimed. The quintessential New Yorker, she was born Joan Molinsky, the daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants in Brooklyn. She grew up feeling fat and ugly in a family stiflingly preoccupied with keeping up appearances. As an adult she remains obsessed by the appearance of things: in her life this has led her to have extensive plastic surgery in her war on ageing; in her comedy it's given her a killer instinct for vanity, hypocrisy and complacency. She has delighted in saying the unsayable, or as she puts it, 'really going at it'.
There is a moment in Joan's life where she became Joan Rivers - she pinpoints it in 1965, on the day she first appeared on the Johnny Carson show, the day '[her] life began'. She was already in her thirties, her first marriage had failed, and cutting her teeth on the New York comedy circuit, she had bombed so repeatedly she declared she'd be more comfortable in Pearl Harbour than Off Broadway. Two critical events then occurred. She saw Lenny Bruce's set in a New York nightclub. He was the genius of New Comedy - gone, the polite jokes of the Doris Day era; in their place, a merciless exercise in telling it like it is. Joan was blown away by the brutal honesty of Bruce's comedy. She completely revised her own routine and the very things that had plagued her - feeling fat, used up, too old, too ugly - became the cornerstones of her comedy. Then, after her appearance on his show, Johnny Carson told her she was going to be a star. Joan Rivers was born.
Since then the Queen of withering one-liners has survived vertiginous highs - she became a direct competitor to Johnny Carson, with her own, network talk show in the 80's - and devastating lows. Carson never forgave her for daring to rival him. Worse still, television executives at Fox deemed her show to be a failure and she was unceremoniously fired. Her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide three weeks later, leaving Joan and her daughter Melissa close to bankruptcy after a string of "bizarre investments". Joan was in hospital having surgery for liposuction when she was given the news of his death.
In this South Bank Show Joan Rivers describes her amazing second coming - the resurrection of her career on the comedy circuit and cable television, and her special relationship with gay men.
By returning to her roots in small comedy clubs in Manhattan, and her "core audience", which is gay/alternative, Joan Rivers, pushing 70, rediscovered herself again and built up a new stand up act which has received startled rave reviews. In this programme, we see her hammering out new material in improvised sessions at clubs like the Fez and the Duplex in the Village. She revisits her roots in the Brooklyn of Joan Molinsky, and gives us a glimpse of the frenetic energy she requires to run her parallel careers as a television presenter and businesswoman, with her own line of spectacularly fake jewellery.
Joan Rivers has applied to her life and career the same rule she has applied to her body and face: If it drops, lift it.
Produced and directed by Susan Shaw