WHAT IT’S ABOUT Joan Rivers, who died in 2014, conducted an extensive interview with the Comedy Hall of Fame a decade ago. There are plenty of outtakes from that here, along with tributes from a wide range of comedians, including Dick Cavett, Don Rickles, Lily Tomlin and Marlo Thomas.
MY SAY Rivers was one of the greatest of comedians, but what does “greatest of” mean exactly? With a little help from her friends and protégés — all comedians and all indebted to her — “Exit Laughing” does a particularly informative job of setting the record straight. Rivers would probably profess to hate the film — “Oh grow up,” she’d bark at the parade of admirers here — but she’d be secretly pleased.
There’s a lot to be pleased with. The veteran actress and comedian Judy Gold is particularly on point about Rivers’ style and influence, citing her insistence on tackling “the pink elephant in the room.” The word “fearless” comes up often. Perhaps unexpectedly, so do the words “kindness” and “generosity.”
But what’s best here is what should be — Rivers herself. In this 2007 interview conducted by Jeffrey Pancer for the Comedy Hall of Fame Archive, Rivers is expansive and eloquent about her craft and ambition. She was the most public of public personalities, but she was often just a blur, a sound bite, or red-carpet quipster. In “Exit Laughing,” she settles in for her close-up.
The view is thoughtful and revealing: “Anything I can’t bear to think about or face . . . I go to comedy.” She says she had only one influence — Lenny Bruce. That’s well known. What’s less well known is the note he sent her after watching her bomb in some comedy club: “ ‘They were wrong. You were right.’ ”
There have been other Rivers’ tributes, like the 2014 “American Masters” portrait, “A Piece of Work,” and some of those improve on this in one significant way — they offered performance clips. (Only a few here.)
At least this one is warmer and more approachable. (Rivers warm and approachable? Oh shut up).
BOTTOM LINE A generous and thoughtful overview of one of the greatest comedians — but way too short on clips.