The decision to open MAKERS: Women in Comedy with the words of Joan Rivers was made before the comedian died earlier this month, but when it airs Tuesday, the documentary will act as a sort of tribute to her pioneering status.
“She set up the film perfectly,” co-director Heidi Ewing told EW. “She’s a lion tamer. It’s all about being in charge and she just delivered. It’s also just a nod to the great Joan Rivers, setting it up as her being the matriarch.”
Ewing (who directed and produced the documentary with Rachel Grady) had been trying to score an interview with Rivers for months and was finally granted a last-minute one which took place April. She thought she would have 45 minutes with Rivers, but Rivers sat for hours during the session in her apartment on the Upper East Side. “The first thing I said to her was, listen, I’m going to try to endeavor to ask you a few things you haven’t been asked or at least in a long time,” Ewing said. “I might fail. But I’m not going to ask you about Johnny Carson. And she was like, ‘God bless you, darling, God bless you.'”
The nearly hour-long documentary is the first of a series of six, all of which are about women in fields ranging from Hollywood to space to politics. Women in Comedy, narrated by Leslie Mann, certainly doesn’t cover all of the women who have made their mark on comedy in detail. It hones in on certain talents like Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Roseanne Barr, and Sarah Silverman, and it takes time to focus on Norman Lear’s influence in bringing a character like Maude to the small screen and the environment for women in comedy clubs in the 1980s. “Instead of just doing a history of women in comedy, we really try to focus on different women whose comedy itself—the jokes, the approach, the writing—represented and reflected the era the best and pushed the envelope forward,” Ewing said.
The documentary closes with Behar saying, “This is the last documentary I ever want to see about women in comedy,” and Ewing was aware that this film would cover some already well-covered topics. “As much as everybody was like, oh, we’ve got to do women in comedy again, why do we have to differentiate ourselves, once you scratch the surface and start talking to any of these women, from Joan and Joy Behar all the way up to Whitney Cummings and Chelsea Handler, there still is a difference,” she said. “They do have engage differently with the career and at the end of the day there are interesting things to be said about how you maneuver and manage your career in comedy as a woman.”
There is something sadly timely about having Rivers be the first and guiding voice in the film. “I thought about it after she passed away. It’s kind of chilling to watch it back. I saw it with an audience the other night in Miami. I had never seen it with a group of people,” she said. “As soon as it started and they saw her everybody [gasped].”
MAKERS: Women in Comedy premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. It will premiere online Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET and will subsequently be available to view online at MAKERS.com. Watch clips of Rivers in the documentary below.