I must confess that before I watched this special, I was blissfully unaware of Joan Rivers' status as a comedienne. I certainly knew of Joan Rivers, the TV personality, from her inescapable presence at various red carpet events and her TV shows. I just assumed her schtick was limited to mocking celebrities and what they were wearing. Her new stand up special, Don't Start with Me, proves me wrong by demonstrating how willing she is to mock everybody (celebrity status not required).
She starts off the show in Chicago by grabbing the microphone from the backstage announcer and preemptively declaring her intent to offend the entire audience. From there she strides onto the stage and jumps right into an awful Michael Jackson joke. The gag is darkly funny in a way that makes her look a lot worse than Jackson himself. As it turns out, this will be the theme of the night as she mercilessly savages target after target, many of whom don't even deserve it, thus making her look even more monstrous in the process.
Even though Rivers' set is pretty loose, she frames the entire show with a device that gives it a little structure. She claims to be tired of performing on other peoples' terms so she wants to whittle down her audience to only include those who truly appreciate her. This, of course, provides her with a laundry list of people to rail against. She rants about old folks, people with children, Chinese women, thin people and the handicapped while gays, lesbians and fat people are deemed fit to stay. Along the way, she finds time to say a few choice words about blind people, Anne Frank, Auschwitz and the people of New Orleans...just another taboo-breaking, controversy-baiting comedic walk in the park.
Unlike her audience that was eating up every minute of it, I have mixed feelings about Rivers' performance here. While I respect her view that sacred cows are begging to be slaughtered, I'm not sure I see the humor in doing that to the exclusion of everything else. Rivers unloads her barrage of mean with such blunt force that it starts to overwhelm and numb one's senses. Any wit or cleverness on her part gets buried under the shock value that she shovels on. Case in point: When talking about the Great Wall of China, Rivers says "the Chinese build their walls like they drive". It's a quick hit but heaven help me, I laughed. Later she does her impression of a Chinese person by pulling slanted eyes and saying "Herro". I think you can see the difference. Unfortunately Rivers can't.
To be fair, Rivers does change the subject once in a while. When she isn't tearing down social mores, she dishes the dirt on celebrities ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Cher. These bits are amusing enough but don't carry as much originality in a landscape that also features Kathy Griffin. One aspect of Rivers act that was a little bit surprising to uninitiated little ol' me was just how vulgar she could be. I don't think you've lived until you've heard a 78 year old woman talk about anal sex and droopy vaginas. This segment also saw her engaging in a bit of physical comedy as she literally got down and dirty on the floor.
While Joan Rivers may not be my speed, I suspect this is exactly the sort of set that her fans would enjoy. She's irreverent, brash and energetic; all elements I normally enjoy in a comedy act. Here, the blend just feels a little...off.