What a troubling month this has been for the world of comedy. In a short span of a few days that also saw the untimely death of Robin Williams, the loss of Joan Rivers inspires contrasting reflections. In one respect, both of these gargantuan comedic figures were distinctly different – one was a showman with an unending zest for cheerfulness, and the other was honest and sometimes intensely scathing. Both also went through immense inner turmoil that quietly drove them to use stand-up as a treatment regimen, especially in their later years; for Robin, unfortunately, such factors could not cure him of emotional unrest. What takes Joan away at the ripe age of 81 is unfortunate considering how active she was right until the end of her lengthy career, but her death brings with it the acknowledgment of the great (and sometimes unending) power of laughter: that in many cases, it creates an opportunity for us to neutralize the things that so frequently destroy our peace of mind. That she remained a steadfast champion of that belief until her last waking moment goes to emphasize her status as the most disciplined comedian of our time.
Above all other achievements in a career that spanned well over 50 years, here was a woman who, first and foremost, used the premise of a joke as a way of abolishing the stigma of social limits. When Larry King once asked her if any subject could be too far over the line, her reply was a simple “no.” Her reasoning? It all went to the heart of the matter: when you could take a taboo subject off the table and incorporate it into a punchline, she believed, you offered the audience an opportunity to make peace with it. That thought process created a divisive split in the public, however, and she often paid the price for such conviction when there were outcries over jokes she made about Nazi Germany, September 11th and the recent Israel/Palestine conflict. But she never apologized for ruffling such feathers either, even when directly confronted with the matter. In her incisive documentary “A Piece of Work,” there is a scene when an audience member informs her that jokes about deaf people are not funny, whereupon she counters the matter with a personal admission: “my own mother was deaf.”
That had been her quintessential approach from the beginning. For half a century, the world of stand-up knew of her presence as the most vocal lightning rod of the industry – a label that was clearly influenced by the notion that she was, in fact, the first female voice of her generation. Because history reminds us that well-behaved women aren’t prominent in influencing change, hers was a demeanor that often went blatantly over-the-top to find the effective rhythm. Some said it was like watching a 24/7 celebrity roast. And there was little doubt that she drew on personal pain to establish that approach, too. In 1987, when her husband committed suicide in a hotel room, she did not let her grief sully her own outlook, and she was back on the road a few weeks later, sometimes even poking fun at the topic itself.
50 years is an awfully long time to be good at something, especially in the entertainment industry. Her credentials spoke for themselves, though. After landing a guest spot on Johnny Carson’s late night show in the mid-60s, the great television personality announced immediately that she would “be a star.” Not long after, that exposure went into hyper-drive. In addition to stand-up tours across the globe, there were books, comedy specials, and even the role of the guest co-host of “The Tonight Show” itself, a job she maintained for many years until she moved over to the Fox network to run her own late-night program. Watching old clips of that prized hosting gig, the one thing that is apparent, above all else, is her ability to engage with famous names without being overcome by possible embarrassment; because she made fun of so many of those that she interviewed, there was a risk of succumbing to awkward interactions. That is indicative of someone who bought her own philosophy about comedy – it’s nothing personal. Much later in life, however, the prospect of bitter rivalries was realized in exchanges with some minor celebrities, and her final interaction with a recovering alcoholic named Brigitte Nielsen – who was still bothered by jokes she made twenty years earlier – remains one of the most uncomfortable interviews ever caught by television cameras.
Once older age became the curse that could undermine career momentum, Joan shamelessly turned to new pastures. Plastic surgery, a process she subscribed to long before middle age, suddenly became her best friend. “This industry is shit; you have to look good,” she once admitted. Repeated face-lifts and injections were not off-the-table when it came to jokes, either, and some of her more memorable proclamations were self-directed (“I have had so many face lifts, I wear my earrings on my knee-caps!”). Then there was, of course, the gig of fashion critic on the red carpet that came to her in the later years; though relatively superficial as a means of keeping her name active in a public eye that celebrated tabloid fodder, it nonetheless made her an active presence in a generation filled with bigger risks and overblown political correctness.
That this woman, this vessel of a million put-downs and punchlines, worked tirelessly into the age of 81 – and just a few short days before she lost her life – is such a remarkable achievement in its own right that it gives us all new hope as we slog slowly towards the end of the mortality road. In her book “I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me,” she makes the following observation: “When my time comes I’m going out in high style. I have no intention of being sick or lingering or dragging on and on and boring everyone I know. I have no intention of coughing and wheezing for months on end.” Despite the questionable circumstances that resulted in her demise, how relieved she would be to have known, in hindsight, that the end would come quickly and without much pain or suffering in between. And how flattered she would have been to see her legacy as the quintessential trailblazer of female stand-up be so celebrated, and exemplified by the outpouring of support that surrounds her on the day of her death. Joan Rivers was many things to many people – funny, audacious, honest, brutal, even loyal – but to these eyes it is her unending work ethic that will continue to fascinate us all, especially considering how relentless it seemed in an industry where fame is typically rewarded in rather brief increments.
Written by DAVID KEYES