There are at least two ways a critic can approach the stand-up comedy of Joan Rivers. One is to just sit back and laugh at her jokes along with everyone else in the room. Another is also to marvel at and dissect the skill with which she works. I used to laugh at her material back in her early days of performing at Manhattan revue venues. She has gotten even better with time, as demonstrated in her performances at the Laurie Beechman Theater in the West Bank Café. Rivers, bursting with stage energy, keeps up her rapid-fire routines marked by daring to go just about anywhere and not worry about political correctness.
Her punch-lines come so fast that one can miss some of her funny asides. Her ability to create hilarity with her gestures, expressions and total demeanor seems to have increased. She continues to be one very funny lady who can convulse a room with laugher, as was the case when I saw her July 8, 2010 performance. One can realize the intense work that went into the act and admire how she builds it, but gives the impression that it is all casually flowing in free form. That takes special know-how.
“Did you see my movie?” she asked, and the audience responded with a rousing “yes.” Then she proceeded to ridicule the making of it. I saw the film, too (see review in the Film section of “Joan Rivers—a Piece of Work”) but there is nothing like catching Rivers in person. She has built her current act around the concept of hating certain types of people, although she does plenty of digressing along the way. She announces that she hates fat people and suggests that anyone who is fat leave. She says fat people complain of not being loved. But she says that isn’t true—their butcher loves them, their baker loves them etc.
She rails against Chinese women, anorexics, ugly people, ugly children, relatives—you name it. She says gay men make better audiences than lesbians and should sit in the front with lesbians in the back. She has the nerve to say that Hitler had a point, explaining that as a child she wanted to write him that she hoped he wouldn’t come to America, but if he did, she had a cousin Sheila she would like taken care of. She makes fun of Helen Keller as having been unable to tell a story at a party. One problem she has with blind people—you never get compliments from them.
Obviously it takes people with a broad, irreverent sense of humor to appreciate Rivers at her fullest, and that was the kind of audience she drew on the night I caught her act—her kind of crowd. This is New York, after all, and Rivers knows what appeals. Her joking explanation of why gay men have an easier time feigning orgasms than women is better left communicated by her on stage.
Her other scheduled performances at the venue are July 14, 15, August 5 and August 19. Laughter guaranteed. Reviewed at the Laurie Beechman Theater, West Bank Café, 407 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-352-3101.