The TV Series:
When confronted with the three-DVD set "That Show" with Joan Rivers, vol. 1-3, my first thought went: "Joan Rivers had a talk show in the '60s?"
But it's true. A lifetime before the Botoxed one slipped into reality shows, jewelry pitches and catty fashion commentary with her joined-at-the-hip daughter Melissa, Joan Rivers and husband Edgar Rosenberg tried to position the youngish comedienne and mother as a daytime talk show host with "That Show", which ran in syndication for a single year in 1968-69. Given the fact that Rivers' humor has gotten increasingly toxic and bitter over the years (as evidenced in the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work), it's interesting to see her in this setting as a manic yet friendly Nice Jewish Lady dishing on child rearing, catering, physical fitness and, of course, gossip.
Recorded in August and September of 1968, the eighteen episodes on Synergy Entertainment's "That Show" with Joan Rivers, vol. 1-3 give a good indication of what worked and didn't work with this lively little program. Each show was roughly structured in three parts, tied into a subject seemingly ripped from the pages of the latest issue of McCall's or Ladies Home Journal. Opening each show is a spotlit Joan riffing on that day's topic, milling about and playing off the audience. She's completely in her element in these segments, brimming with energy and a sense of humor that was comparatively much more homey and self-deprecating ("I have a weird-shaped head; I need to wear orthopedic wigs").
The bulk of these episodes consist of Joan interviewing people on a tiny set, decorated in a way that might be described as Louis XIV on a budget. Having established the day's topic in the opening monologue, she then introduces an expert on the subject along with a celebrity guest to dish and discuss. Granted, some of the celebrity/subject pairings are random (what would Phyllis Newman know about hypnosis, anyhow?), but they do provoke some memorable interactions. It's never so evident as in the first episode (topic: nudism), in which Johnny Carson seems completely gobsmacked by the pleasant middle-aged lady who runs a nudist colony sharing the stage. As for Joan's interviewing style, she ingratiating and thankfully doesn't turn the conversation into a personal joke-fest - not too often, anyway (also notable is the fact that she doesn't go all Kathie Lee on us, bringing up her kid at every turn - baby Melissa barely comes up at all). She has a genuine interest in the topics covered, something that is most well-demonstrated in the final segments where she ventures into the audience to facilitate questions for the guests (it must be a sign of the still-polite '60s that most of the audience queries are directed towards the experts, and not the celebrities).
If anything, this set is a neat little capsule of the '60s. The topics covered tend to delve into matters ephemeral and dated, as evidenced by one show's efforts to answer the burning question, "Should a woman decorate to please herself, or to please a man?" That's part of the appeal, however. It's also a good opportunity to see celebs being shockingly casual about certain things, such as Jerry Lewis matter-of-factly speaking about spanking as an essential component of child rearing. Other highlights include a lithe 'n perky Florence Henderson demonstrating her post-pregnancy exercise regime and Nancy Walker's first order of business - lighting up a cigarette! The experts on hand tend to be just as interesting as their more famous counterparts, strangely enough. This was an era in which people didn't have to showboat or go into smarmy salesperson mode to look smart.
It goes without saying where Joan Rivers stands on the "Cosmetic Surgery" episode, of course.
Synergy Entertainment's three disc "That Show" with Joan Rivers, vol. 1-3 set contains the following 18 episodes with subject, recording date, celebrity guest and expert guest:
||Dr. Irwin Chabon
|Children In Show Business
||Dr. Stephen Beltz
||Dr. Daniel Weiner
|Are You In Shape?
||Dr. George Lyon
|Does Your Child Love You?
||Dr. Emanuel Schwartz
|The Jet Set
|Do You Need A Maid?
||Dixie Dean Trainer
||Dr. Joyce Brothers
The three discs in Synergy's "That Show" with Joan Rivers, vol. 1-3 are packaged in a standard-width amaray case with a simple, appealing package design. Despite appearances to the contrary, all episodes in this set are in color (cue the NBC peacock).
Mastered from decades-old videotapes, these shows sport a fuzzed-out, faded look similar to the Dick Cavett Show episodes released to disc a few years back. Several episodes contain video artifacts and the occasional dropout. The deficiencies aren't bad enough to get in the way of viewing these decent looking episodes, however.
The only audio option is an unspectacular mono mix. No subtitles on this no-frills package.
Although many episodes practically beg for an audio commentary from Ms. Rivers, there are no extras.
"That Show" serves as an interesting window on Joan Rivers' early career, showcasing a brash and energetic young comedienne with a knack for the talk-show format. The oh-so-1968 topics on discussion might not be to everyone's tastes, but this critic found it absorbing. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.