When Joan Rivers died last week, a common refrain resounded throughout the movie sphere of Twitter: “Watch Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” It was good advice. Anyone who wants to understand her importance as a media figure, or just as a person, would do well to check out that documentary. And after seeing it, you might have a hankering to check out more docs about entertainers who are devoted to making people laugh.
Here are ten, including the Rivers film, to catch up with:
Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2002) and Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013)
The Broadway legend kept working right up until her death earlier this year. At Liberty is Elaine Stritch in her own words, a filmed version of her acclaimed one-woman show. She won an Emmy for her riotous recounting of her life and work, a two-hour cavalcade of memories shot by a team of directors led by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. Shoot Me is Stritch as viewed through someone else’s lens. While the actress and singer is still on point with her defiant rambunctiousness, director Chiemi Karasawa delivers a more raw, vulnerable side of her. Footage of Stritch without makeup, lying in bed due to sickliness, are the sort of thing that you don’t get from a performer just talking about it on stage. It’s a funny but moving look at reflection in old age while still pursuing what one loves.
Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2007)
This film is more of a tribute to its lead than it is about his life. It’s evident in how it cobbles together more celebrity interviewees to talk about Don Rickles than all the rest of the docs on this list do for their respective artists put together. The film is more interested in Rickles’s sense of humor than it is his life. And it works because he is an extraordinarily funny man. Director John Landis is more in a mode of adulation than a critical look at his subject, but this doc still captures Rickles’s sensibility wonderfully.
The Life of Reilly (2007)
Like Elaine Stritch at Liberty, this is a movie version of the title character’s one-man play. Charles Nelson Reilly is perhaps the least well-known of the performers on this list, but this doc will make you want to seek out every single thing he was ever in. Reilly recounts his life, which in his hands is a picaresque tale of oddities and strange coincidences. He grew up with a father who was later institutionalized and an aunt who was lobotomized, survived an infamous circus fire when he was 13,= and very nearly made a film with Walt Disney before he was famous, until his father put a stop to it. He’s known for being a camp performer, and this film keeps his flamboyant energy in the service of all of life’s ups and downs. This is a work of pure storytelling power and not to be missed.
American: The Bill Hicks Story (2010)
Bill Hicks has been so heavily mythologized by devotees of American stand-up that it’s become difficult to separate the man from the legend. This documentary accomplishes this by eschewing any famous talking heads. Instead, it features the voices of a few people who were friends or family of Hicks, not so much giving interviews as they are reminiscing about him. Even if you know Hicks’s life inside and out, this is a distinctly new way of looking at it, combining old footage with animation to tell his story. More than anything else, it makes you yearn for what could have been had Hicks not passed away so young.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)
There was a solid split in the reaction to Joan Rivers’s death. While some praised her for her trailblazing for women in comedy, others reminded that she often made jokes at the vicious expense of various minorities. They weren’t wrong, of course. Still others could recall Rivers only as a pop culture punchline, memorable for nothing more than The Celebrity Apprentice or her plastic surgery. This doc, from directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, incorporates all of these aspects of Rivers’s life and much more into its portrait of her. It is not sentimental nor worshipful, though it is sympathetic, shot as she went through her 75th birthday, a time before The Apprentice brought her back into the spotlight. She’s actually vulnerable here, which is a trip for anyone who has only seen her lobbing cracks on the red carpet. A Piece of Work is an ode not to Rivers but to tenacity and how she refused to go away even when it seems the crowds were finished with her. Which is as great a testament to her spirit as she could have asked for.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)
Unlike most of the other docs on this list, this is not a biography nor a memoir but a film focused specifically on one time in its subject’s life. Director Rodman Fleischer followed Conan O’Brien on his “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour, a 2010 road show that he put together to give himself something to do after his unceremonious dumping from The Tonight Show. The movie paints O’Brien as almost a manic addict to performing. The title doesn’t read like an exaggeration; he literally can’t seem to stop himself from moving. Even as he gets more and more stressed and tired while moving across the country, O’Brien doesn’t slow down. It’s not what people who have only seen him on late night television would expect, but it casts a lot of light on his onstage personality.
Carol Channing: Larger than Life (2012)
Carol Channing has been stepping onto the stage for seven decades, and as incredible as it may seem, she still doesn’t miss a step. Though she was raised a Christian Scientist, she describes the theater as her true temple. Beyond serving as a biography or a greatest hits of Channing’s career, Larger than Life is a testament to vitality. Channing claims that she’s only ever missed “half” a performance, which was due to food poisoning. Even in her 90s, she’s spry. She may or may not be immortal, and if the latter is the case, look forward to another retrospective like this 90 more years down the road.
I Am Divine (2013)
“The Drag Queen of the Century.” “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Almost.” Few people can become worthy of being known just by one name, but Divine is one of them. By far the most traditional biographical doc on this list, I Am Divine is still worth checking out for the myriad of colorful characters who swirled around her world. John Waters is one of the least outrageous people in the film, for perspective. And Divine herself is always immensely entertaining to behold, a maelstrom of filthiness and exuberance. It’s also a memorial to the heyday of Waters’s “Dreamlanders,” many of whom have passed on.
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic (2013)
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired director Marina Zenovich turns her camera on one of the most influential stand-up comedians of the modern age. This is actually the third documentary about Richard Pryor, the first two being I Ain’t Dead Yet and The Funniest Man Dead or Alive, their titles rather morbid given that they came out so close to his death. But Omit the Logic provides a much more in-depth look at the man, and even then it feels like it’s only scratched his surface. Like Wanted and Desired, this doc edits expertly between various sources to draw up a complete vision, including some rare footage, such as incredible outtakes from Pryor’s concert film Live on the Sunset Strip. The paucity of ethnic diversity on this list is a testament to how relatively few docs have been made about non-white comedians and entertainers. It’s frustrating, but in the meantime this doc is a necessity.