Joan Rivers. Where do I begin? The comedy, the warmth, the unflinching dedication to her art? Because in Rivers’ case, comedy was art. As she once described it, comedy is like music. She said it was about timing, like musical notes joining to form a tapestry of meaning. There’s a constant rhythm in her work; a back and forth conversation with her audience, ‘can we talk?’ Like music, an invitation to share the emotive impulse behind the gags – so many, and so brilliant – and there was this candour. As an A-list celebrity, Rivers bared her soul to her audiences saying ‘look, I’m like you, I have these things happen to me, real, difficult, human things’.
She was sharp, and cutting, treading dangerous waters, going after the big and mighty in Hollywood and beyond. Joan’s humour was an antidote to the braying of our celebrity gods and goddesses. She offered an alternative to the loudspeaker voice that heaps lavish attention on the rich and powerful. Joan punctured the rhetoric, tore down the golden calf, and she did it in a way that was hilarious.
Rivers was unapologetic. On Joan’s 1980’s talk show, Bo Derek, female sex icon of the era, (and not without a sense of humour herself), complained about Joan’s ‘mean comments’ vis-a-vis Liz Taylor’s weight. Derek pointed out that celebrities have ‘soft spots’. Joan’s response, ‘I was hoping Liz Taylor would join us tonight, but the chair’s not big enough’. Again, never missing a beat. By the end of the interview, Bo Derek agreed that in puncturing the bloated celebrity-ego, Joan was doing society a service. Such was the power of Rivers’ own rhetoric.
Much has been said and written on Joan Rivers’ comedic brilliance. Interestingly, throughout her life, she classified herself as ‘writer’. She preferred this title (in her passport for instance) over that of ‘comic’ which she said was ‘the lowest of the low’ occupation. She once stated that she had achieved ‘very little’ in her life. Again, the self-deprecation, this time needling her comic persona. Indeed, she was a writer, writing most of her gags, and in her early years, writing material for the Ed Sullivan show. She authored several humour books.
Rivers is well-known and respected as a groundbreaking comedy genius. Her altruism is a less-discussed aspect of her personality. Some will say that this is absurd. Rivers, with her gladiatorial spirit, the absolute Queen of insults, ‘altruistic’? Yes. The essence of her act entailed putting her own ego on the line. In her drive to connect on a really visceral level with her audiences, Joan Rivers pushed sexual, social and cultural boundaries. The starting point was usually Rivers herself. You could argue that the whole act was a form of social catharsis. Such risk-taking nearly cost Rivers her career, (especially as defined in the puritanical 1960’s).
Rivers once said she was more Jew-ish than Jewish, but how much more stereotypically East Coast Jewish can you get? Daughter of Russian immigrants, father a doctor and Joan herself a Phi Beta Kappa; and an innate sense of social obligation. For 25 years, Joan Rivers delivered meals on behalf of the charity ‘God’s Love We Deliver’. Naturally she extracted ribald comedy out of this charitable social service, calling it ‘feels on wheels’ – no explanation needed.
Joan’s loss was a blow to the charity, which said;
Joan brought warmth, humor and love to every delivery she made and every event she supported. Her impact on the God’s Love community will always be felt by our clients, volunteers, staff and supporters. We are honored that her daughter, Melissa Rivers, has joined our Board of Directors, continuing her mother’s legacy and commitment.
Joan never forgot the debt she owed to the public, particularly strangers. She once said in a rare interview with Dr William Rader that it was not suited executives who restored her career, around the time of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg’s death but the public, and strangers. Joan often said that she cared about ‘her people’ as she called them. Who were they? Often, those on the margins; gays, lesbians, or members of the public who accosted her on the street; or persistent media hacks.
As classy as she was, Rivers was never above signing an autograph or exchanging a word with a struggling reporter or budding showbiz hopeful. Always the gag, always the giving of herself, always the lightness of touch. In later years, when the world of showbiz (which she famously described as her second child) started to get her down, just a bit, Joan bowed out. That was before she got too old and too cranky to enjoy the spotlight quite as much as she had done before.
Rivers was not universally liked or admired. She had, and still has many detractors. For instance, self-righteous animal-rights activists who despised her for her habit of wearing fur coats. Her outspoken comments on Palestine and Hamas – again with the grain of realism – earned her no favours amongst the politically-correct caucuses of the media. Joan was by no means perfect, nor would she claim to be. The beauty of her personality was that she stood up and spoke her truth in an incredibly funny voice. Thus mitigating the harsh realisation that being human is no joke. Her comedy was brash and brilliant, and necessary. I loved Joan Rivers for her insistence on being herself. Despite the uncompromising ferocity of her wit, or better yet because of it, she was an inspirational human being; one in a million, and long may her legacy survive.