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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 15, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Joan Rivers, Lucy's Cookies, SYTYCD

I remember when Phyllis Diller first made a splash -- it was so exciting that an ordinary housewife, who used to keep the other women in the laundromat laughing, was able to turn it into a career. We all knew of her fictional husband, Fang, and repeated her endless jokes about how ugly she was (though most of her "ugliness" was self-inflicted, with her wild hairdo and cackling laugh).

Then, after I was married, along came Roseanne Barr. It was so exciting that an ordinary housewife ... oh, wait. Same thing, with a slightly different flavor. But we did love her droll self-deprecating wit, until she got so full of herself and so politically correct that she stopped being funny.

Joan Rivers has never stopped being funny. And she wasn't an ordinary housewife. Instead, she was a kid who worked hard to become a serious stage actress -- comedy was just the parttime job she did in order to pay the bills.

By the time Rivers appeared on Johnny Carson for the first time, she had already been around the block. In fact, she had been on the Tonight Show before, when Jack Paar was the host. But Paar didn't seem to understand that when comedians are "interviewed," it's just a continuation of their standup routine. When Rivers continued cracking jokes during the interview, Paar became furious and afterward told his staff never to bring her back -- "she lies," he said.

Well, Carson didn't think she was lying, he thought she was funny, and he backed up his opinion. Not only did he give her extraordinary praise, he also made her his permanent guest-host. And she was terrific at it -- sometimes her shows got better ratings than some of his. Carson didn't mind. She was his protegee.

Until Fox came to her and made her an offer she couldn't refuse, to do a talk show of her own that would compete head to head with Carson's. Carson had faced competition before -- and remained cordial with the hosts. But Rivers was a different case. For one thing, she didn't tell him about the deal until after it was signed, so he didn't even have a chance to counter-offer or advise her against it. To Carson, it was a slap in the face from someone to whom he had done nothing but good, and he never forgave her. They never spoke again.

Worse yet, Rivers's talk show on Fox was a personal disaster. Her ratings were surprisingly good -- on a startup network she was getting a strong audience share. But it was a constant war between her and her producer husband Edgar on one side and Fox President Barry Diller and his boys on the other, until finally they forced Edgar off the show -- and then Joan herself. Her replacement, Arsenio Hall, apparently pleased Fox more -- though he never got ratings as high as hers had been.

Then Edgar, apparently blaming himself for the fiasco, committed suicide -- which is when Joan, in the midst of her grief, discovered that Edgar hadn't been much of a businessman and she didn't have any money.

So there she was, broke, widowed, unemployed, with Carson's stamp of disapproval on her -- can you say "never work in this town again"? That's about where her life story was back in 1987, when my wife and I read and enjoyed her memoir Enter Talking.

Then we sort of lost track of her. All we knew was that she and her sour-faced daughter Melissa did the Red Carpet show before the Academy Awards, and that she had a lot of plastic surgery and wrote a book about it.

Then, a couple of years ago, Joan and Melissa Rivers were on Donald Trump's The Apprentice. I watched only one episode, but that was enough to let me see that Melissa wasn't just coasting on Mommy's reputation -- she was a strong producer that got things done and done right. Unfortunately, that provoked resentment, which got her sabotaged by the other contestants and booted from the show. But Joan hung in there and got a bit of vicarious revenge -- by winning the whole season.

That's all I knew of the twenty-five years of Joan Rivers's life since Enter Talking. Until the documentary movie Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work finally reached Greensboro and my wife and I went to see it.

The film shows us pretty much everything that happened during the year Joan Rivers turned 75. She opened a play that she wrote and starred in, won The Apprentice, and worked and traveled on a schedule that would kill me. But the events aren't as important as the woman herself.

We see her vulnerability. Her old dream of being a serious actress was set aside but not forgotten. When her play gets snotty reviews in London, she decides not to open it in New York at all -- though, because her fans don't care about reviews, she would certainly have made a lot of money from it. Why not do it, then? Because it hurt too much to be panned as an actress.

Instead, she does everything that she's offered that promises to make money. She has a staff to support and a lifestyle to maintain -- and as long as people will pay her to come and be funny, why should she stop?

And she's funny. Not, however, in the way you might expect. You see, most of us know her only from her television appearances, where she says outrageous things but keeps the language more or less clean.

In her stage act, she works blue. Shockingly blue. Saying things that can curl your hair. But still, always, funny.

When she's off camera, her speech is often a little slurred -- whether by age or the deformations of plastic surgery or mere weariness, it's hard to guess. But on stage every word is crisp.

One of the highlights of the show is when she gets heckled for having made a deaf-child joke by a man with a deaf son. This is the sort of thing that can absolutely kill a comedian's performance -- the audience is embarrassed, and from then on nothing is funny. But Joan Rivers doesn't take heckling lying down. To watch her yell at the man, turning the moment into a powerful defense of comedy in the face of tragedy, is downright inspiring.

By the end of the movie, I loved her all over again. I wouldn't take my mother or my sisters to see her live act -- or this movie. I wouldn't be happy if my wife started talking like her. But my wife and I loved hearing her talk, even when she was offensive, because the sheer bravura of each performance, of each day of her life, is invigorating to behold.

And she's funny.

I wouldn't trade lives with her, that's for sure. But I hope I learned something about courage and hard work from seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

*

At a Barnes & Noble in Roanoke, I bought a small package of Lucy's chocolate chip cookies. They are gluten-free -- and they also contain no milk, eggs, peanuts, or tree nuts. Since the things the cookies don't contain is practically a recipe for a pretty good cookie, I had to see if they were actually any good, or just one more punishment inflicted on the allergic.

They're too crisp at first -- not hard as a rock, but crumbly and dry. I usually like moist cookies, but to my surprise, within a couple of chews they turned out to be delicious after all. I ate the whole package.

I don't prefer Lucy's cookies to ordinary-recipe Toll House cookies -- but I have to say that I wouldn't reject them at a party or as a movie snack. People with allergies really do have a decent alternative.

To find out more -- including an account of why Dr. Lucy started making up hypo-allergenic foods -- visit www.drlucys.com.

*

So You Think You Can Dance ended its seventh season with a very credible winner -- though in truth all three finalists proved their talent, artistry, and mettle and I hope to see them all dance again.

This season, the show tried several new things. The biggest change was bringing in all-stars -- graduates of previous seasons of SYTYCD -- to partner with the ten competitors

In previous years, twenty competitors were paired off boy-girl, and one dancer of each sex was eliminated every week. The problem was that the pairings were not always equal, and sometimes a very strong dancer's performances were hurt or limited by the weaknesses of her partner.

But this time, none of the dancers was regularly paired with any of the other competitors. Instead, they were always matched up with partners who had proven themselves again and again. So besides the pleasure of seeing some of the best dancers from previous seasons again, we got a competition in which each dancer rose or fell on the basis of their own talent and work.

The changes in the judges' lineup; the injuries that took some of the best dancers out of the competition too soon; the saga of runners-up Kent and Robert and their growth curve as they became truly astonishing dancers; the moments of great choreography (and the sniping of the judges when a choreographer didn't meet their expectations) -- all made for a highly entertaining season, even though some of my favorites from the auditions didn't make it onto the show.

It's nice to see a show with a proven formula take the risk of changing it in the hope of improvement. I consider these experiments a success.

Even the camera work has improved. In previous seasons, the camera got too busy, moving around and doing closeups so often that we couldn't actually see the dancing. That has been calmed down, and the camera operators and producers seem to understand now that we want to let the dancers dance -- we don't need to have the cameras dancing, too.

Only one major change is still needed -- the irritating lights that shine directly at the audience. Apparently the producers haven't learned the fundamentals of optics -- when a light is shining directly at you, it makes it nearly impossible to see the dancers between you and the lights. Either you're too blind to see them or they're too silhouetted to be more than shadows.

It's those lights that will keep me from going to a live performance of the SYTYCD touring company ever again. And it's annoying how many moments of great dancing are killed by the bad, distracting lighting design. Dance is a visual art. Light shows are also a visual art. Light shows, however, do not remotely compare to the power and beauty of dance. And I, for one, would be grateful if they would stop letting untalented lightshow designers keep blocking us from enjoying the dancing.


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