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Originally published Saturday, June 19, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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'Can we talk?' An interview with comedian Joan Rivers

An interview with comedian Joan Rivers, who is featured in a new documentary about her life and work, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

Seattle Times movie critic

Now playing

'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'

A documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. 84 minutes. Rated R for language and sexual humor. Harvard Exit.

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Can we talk? Absolutely.

Joan Rivers, still hardworking and fast-talking at 77, is on the phone, chatting about "Joan Rivers." The legendary comedian is the subject of the new documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which recently screened at the Seattle International Film Festival and is now playing at the Harvard Exit.

For the film, directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg followed Rivers with cameras for 14 months — during which Rivers turned 75, appeared on TV's "Celebrity Apprentice" (and won), premiered her autobiographical play "A Life in Progress by a Work in Progress" in Edinburgh and London, and performed her stand-up act in venues ranging from vast showrooms to tiny, grungy comedy clubs.

The filmmakers approached Rivers through a prior acquaintance — Stern's mother is a friend of Rivers' — and the comedian said she agreed to the project because she didn't know what to expect from it.

"The reason I went with Ricki and with Annie was because they'd done a film on Darfur ['The Devil Came on Horseback,' 2007], they'd done a film on someone who's been 20 years in jail ['The Trials of Darryl Hunt,' 2006], and so I thought they weren't going to make a stupid, a self-congratulatory documentary," Rivers said. "I knew they would come at it at a very different angle."

Toward that end, Rivers readily agreed to allow cameras into every moment of her life, saying that she never once told them they couldn't film. "I had seen a couple of documentaries that I didn't like," she said. "I'm not going to say the names. They were so controlled, and that's not fair. Once you make your deal [to be filmed], you make your deal."

Cameras captured her without makeup (in the film's extreme close-up opening sequence), waiting to go on stage for her play's opening night in London, at Thanksgiving dinner in her New York apartment, negotiating offers of work over the phone, arguing with her daughter, Melissa, holding hands with her young grandson Cooper ("I love your hands," she tells him, in a sweet moment), and in moments of private despair.

"I do live the diva life," she says now. "There's always highs and lows."

Rivers — who on the phone is warmer and less manic than her usual public persona — said she's seen the completed film "about five times" but tries not to watch it. "There are parts that, no matter what, get me very emotionally upset. [At screenings] I usually come in toward the end."

It's hard, she says, to watch footage of her late husband ("God knows where they found it!" she says of the clips showing Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987), among other scenes.

But there are aspects of the film that she loves, including the scenes with her daughter and grandson, and the footage of her comedy act interspersed throughout. "It makes me so happy that they show bits of my act all through, and the audience just laughs," she said. "I think a lot of people who will see the movie have never seen me on stage — they just know me as the mean lady on the red carpet."

And she's fascinated by what she refers to as a "lucky" sequence: a scene in which a man attending her comedy act at a Wisconsin casino angrily interrupts a Helen Keller joke to shout "That's not funny!," saying he has a deaf son. "I have a heckler, literally, once every seven years," said Rivers, still surprised the moment was caught for posterity.

"Those who come to see me really know what I do and come to have fun, and they know I'm going to be outrageous. They know I'm going to be wild. That one poor man absolutely went ballistic. It wasn't even a deaf joke. It was Helen Keller!"

Rivers said the movie doesn't show that she tried to find the man after her act, to talk to him and see if he was getting help for his anger. "I was in such shock," she said. Humor, she says, is how you get through tough times. "What's your choice?" she said. "Laugh, or go insane."

Since the film's completion, Rivers has continued to perform her comedy act around the country, including regular gigs at the Cutting Room, a small club in Manhattan that has, she sadly notes, just closed its doors.

She was there just a few weeks ago, trying out some new material. ("I said, gay terrorists are the best, because the color for the alert will be fuchsia. I remember laughing at that.")

In the film, we see how she perpetually shapes her act with new jokes. "I plead with your readers — if you think you're funny, send me jokes, right now!" she says, laughing.

Rivers is also at work on a new reality series with Melissa, called "Mother Knows Best?" — inspired, she says, by the scene in "A Piece of Work" in which the two bicker about Melissa's smoking. Rivers has moved to California to shoot the show, which begins production next month and will air in December.

And this busy septuagenarian is hoping the documentary's exposure might lead to more work, even from unexpected sources. "That's the whole point of the film, for me: Go through any door," she says. "Don't be a fool. Try everything you don't know!"

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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