by Amanda Walgrove
As she’d be the first to joke about, Joan Rivers has tough skin. While her 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, received mostly shining reviews, the film was snubbed during award season because it wasn’t “significantly relevant.” Rivers told the New York Times, “I thought it was about age, I thought it was about perseverance, I thought it was about courage, about getting up again, about women’s place in the world, and I think they’re wrong. I’m angry. Next time I’ll carry around a baby.” Since the ‘50’s when Rivers emerged in show business, she has found numerous ways to reapply herself and remain relevant. Even though the 77 year-old broad will not be added to this year’s list of Jewish Oscar nominees, retirement has never been a discussion.
The powerhouse comedienne has proven to be a resilient businesswoman in the entertainment industry. Bringing in the new year, she can be seen promoting her jewelry line on QVC, debunking wardrobe mishaps on Fashion Police, and touring her stand-up comedy routine, all while providing her own self-deprecating commentary on Twitter. Most recently, Rivers added a new project to her list: The WeTV reality show, Joan and Melissa Rivers: Joan Knows Best follows Joan as she uproots herself from her New York apartment and moves into Melissa’s Malibu home. Joan comes to stay with the intention of creating new memories with her daughter and grandson, but it doesn’t take long for her inner-overbearing Jewish mother and grandmother to emerge.
While the family dynamic and eclectic cast of characters is designed as a recipe for comedy, Joan Rivers will always be a one-woman show. Her strained relationship with Melissa provides ample material for churning out one-liners, packed with shock-value. Joan jests: “Melissa knows just how to push my buttons…which is great, until I’m on a respirator.” But Rivers has no problem meddling in her daughter’s affairs. As matriarch, she actually feels a certain entitlement to such interference. Bothered by the fact that Melissa hired the gorgeous, Swedish Dominica as a nanny for nine-year-old Cooper, Joan tries to take charge. After Melissa stands up for Dominica, Joan slyly dubs the well-endowed nanny, the “Hunchfront of Notre Dame” and personally takes her shopping for some more appropriate work attire.
A veteran in the business, Rivers has the impressive ability of keeping her comedy fresh and contemporary, but the familial conflict at the heart of Joan Knows Best is built on a strong history of Jewish humor. Whether her version of the Jewish mother is based on shtick or sincerity, Joan is indebted to her female forerunners, most notably Gertrude Berg.
Berg’s 1950’s sitcom, The Goldbergs, marked the small screen debut of the archetypal Jewish mother. Just as much of a force as Rivers, Berg was her own screenwriter and producer. She created a clothing line for housewives, published a cookbook, and wrote an advice column called Mama Talks. Like Rivers, Berg’s life produced a documentary, however, hers was posthumous. Aviva Kemper’s 2009 film Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, profiled the career and personal life of Gertrude Berg.
While the yiddishe mamme character of Molly Goldberg was an exaggerated caricature of Berg, many viewers related to the middle-class TV family. In The Paley Center’s film, Remembering Gertrude Berg, Gary David Goldberg recalled the verisimilitude of the show, stating that it was like watching a documentary. He then added, “Years later I remember watching Father Knows Best and thinking, ‘Who are these people? Nobody’s screaming!’” Here in 2011, with reality shows pervading television programming, viewers have their choice of nagging families to watch. New to the roster, Joan Knows Best serves up a combination of the formatted sitcom with plenty of impromptu screams.
Family members often accused the fictional Molly Goldberg of meddling in other people’s affairs, to which she replied, “Not mixing is not fixing.” After moving in, Joan decided to surprise Melissa by redecorating her entire living room against her will. Even though Joan was only trying to make her daughter happy, Melissa responded, “Next time you want to make me happy, let me know.” Joan chose not to acknowledge the few boundaries that existed between mother and daughter.
For a dramatic mother-daughter duo that is used to being in the spotlight, it must be easy to confuse shtick with reality. In the premiere episode, Joan gloats about her relationship with Melissa: “We’re very close. I always say we’re almost like mother and daughter.” Through the comedic portrayal of a Jewish mother, the fine line between the woman and the artist was also drawn thin while producing a sitcom. Berg once said that she played Molly for so many hours in the day that she didn’t know where Gertrude ended and Molly began.
Even though sitcoms are slowly being phased out by reality television, the universal humor of family conflict is alive and well. And so is the Jewish mother. As Joan said while redecorating Melissa’s living room: “Out with the old and in with the new. Except for me.”