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'Piece of Work' shows Joan Rivers as needling and needy

Comedian Joan Rivers doesn't want to retire, because, as she admits in this excellent documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, made by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg when Rivers was 75 (she's now 77), she wants to maintain her lavish lifestyle. But her career is at a low ebb during the yearlong course of the film, which features behind-the-scenes footage of Rivers at home and at work, interviews and reminiscences with Rivers, daughter Melissa, comedian Kathy Griffin and others, plus archival footage of her appearances on TV. She's constantly looking for work, and we see her performing in live shows, soliciting commercials, making TV appearances, writing and performing in her own theatrical show and appearing on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice.

I admit that Rivers' reliance on cruel one-liners isn't my own taste in humor. But she gets off enough funny jokes in interviews and in the documentary's archival and live footage — one on The Tonight Show left Johnny Carson, and me, in stitches, though it cannot be repeated here — to demonstrate why she has survived so long in a very tough line of work.

One might expect that a comedian whose stock in trade is barbed, often insulting humor would have a thick skin. Yet while Rivers appears to be able to take in stride the frequent jokes made by others about her face lifts and cosmetic surgeries, she seems quite fragile when reading the largely negative reviews after she opened her theatrical show in London.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work shows that Rivers remains as quick and funny as ever. But perhaps more telling is what else it reveals — a pathetically needy and narcissistic woman who continually bemoans her fate, bad luck, and betrayal by friends and loved ones.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work retails for $27.98 or $34.98 on Blu-ray.

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