In my memory, my mother learned to speak English from Joan Rivers. When we moved here from Israel, my mom was a muted version of herself, never quite sure what to do with her natural Israeli bluntness in America. Then she discovered Joan Rivers, who, throughout the 1970s, was a guest and sometimes guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. “She wasn’t afraid of anyone,” my mother told me. “She would make a joke about anything.” Soon enough, my mother was telling the neighbors and the handymen and the teachers exactly what she thought of them. Within a year, my mother was the president of the tenants association and the boss of our Queens block. She actually opened conversations with “Can we talk?”
This July my mother came to Washington, D.C., to see me interview Rivers about her new book, Diary of a Mad Diva. Rivers walked into the greenroom with an entourage, a jewel-encrusted leather jacket, her bizarro mask of a face denuded of all its ethnicity. But she did not stink like a diva. She dispensed dating advice to the two stylists on hand to touch up her hair (no sex on the first date), and instantly bonded with my mother about Gaza. (The Palestinians started it. Hamas was re-elected “by a lot of stupid people who don’t even own a pencil.”) Given how Rivers talked, it would be absurd to say she was nice. She was, however, tribal. If she judged you to be on her team, she could relax, act like she’d known you forever. In this case, my mother and I were in, largely because we were New Yorkers, Jews, and in my mother’s case at least, on the right side of the war.
In her profile of comedian Patrice O’Neal, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc described him as a man for whom “no topic seemed off limits.” “The transformative power of the ugly truth was,” to him, “a form of grace,” she wrote. Rivers occupied that space as well. The best scene in her reality show, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best, is when she and her friend, Lynne Koplitz, and her grandson take the ashes of her dear departed friend and secretly spread them around Rodeo Drive.*
The scene is classic Rivers: She is indulging in celebrity culture at the same time that she is mocking it. At one point, outside the Cartier store, she puts her hand on a man’s pristine suit, leaving the white ashes on his back where he can’t see them.
For Rivers, celebrities were always fair game. She revived her career in the aughts with her Oscar night red carpet hall of shame, telling celebrities such as Julia Roberts, for example, that she hated her dress. But eventually the celebrities rebelled, so she stopped doing it to their faces. On her popular E! show, Fashion Police, she made brutal fun of famous people’s outfits, and often they deserved it. (See Kesha’s sad troll look.) Kristen Stewart recently sued Rivers for what she wrote in her book about Stewart’s affair with director Rupert Sanders. (She got her whole career “by being able to juggle directors’ balls.”)
But Rivers’ real distinction is being one of the earliest female comedians to be relentlessly filthy, and also to talk in an unfiltered way about being a woman. Nearly 30 years before Sarah Silverman, Rivers’ career almost ended when she told an abortion joke on the air. (“I couldn't even say the word ‘abortion,’ ” she told Terry Gross a few years ago. “I had to say, 'She had 14 appendectomies.’ ... Everyone went to Cuba to get appendectomies.”) And watch this fantastic monologue she did on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, where she laments the plight of the single girl.
In it, Rivers riffs on what it means to be a cool girl, long before Gillian Flynn did it in Gone Girl. Boys, she says, just have to be clean and pick up the check. But a girl has to be pretty, intelligent, passive, and always a good sport. (“Howard Johnson’s again, hooray!”) As always, Rivers takes the joke just beyond the comfort zone, talking about how as she reached her late 20s and was still unmarried, her mother used to pretend she was dead.
Throughout her career Rivers was relentless about her own body, and the scrutiny of female bodies in general. Here she is on The Carol Burnett Show talking about how she went from an “ugly, flat-chested little girl” to an “ugly, flat-chested woman,” and how she was such a dog at her own wedding that they had to throw a bone to get her down the aisle.
In retrospect, after all her plastic surgeries, the self-abuse is a little less funny. But at least she killed the idea that lady issues were not suitable for public discussion. Here she is on Carson in 1984 badgering an audience member about what contraception she uses:
Sometimes her reflexive transgression got old. A documentary about her, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, shows clips from one of her raunchiest stand-up shows, which includes a long riff on anal sex. In her latest book, she goes after Anne Frank, Rosa Parks, Black History Month, Mother Teresa, Helen Keller, Jackie Kennedy, Kanye West (that one’s easy), her lesbian neighbors, and Flo in those Progressive insurance commercials. And on the steps outside before the event I did with her, Rivers told a photographer that Michelle Obama was a “tranny.” The big indifferent blogosphere didn’t take to that one. (“Dude, what is wrong with Joan Rivers?”) Inside she told even more offensive jokes, but this time the audience was primed to love her. She was appearing at a synagogue, yet they were delighted when she let loose on Anne Frank. (“Anne just didn’t try. … The girl had nothing but time on her hands. Would it have killed Anne to take time out of her ‘busy’ day and throw on a little blush?”) The one that brought the house down was arguably her most offensive joke, which she tells a lot, about what she’s thinking when a baby cries on an airplane: “Where is Casey Anthony when you need her?”
A few days after I interviewed her, Rivers walked off the set in the middle of a CNN interview. The anchor, Fredricka Whitfield, asked Rivers in a dozen different ways if she was over-the-top mean. “Do you feel like there are boundaries ever?” Whitfield asked. “Even if it makes people uncomfortable? Or if it offends people?” She then asked if Rivers was going out of her way to offend animal rights activists by wearing a fur on the cover of her book. That was it. Whitfield was now the enemy. “Are you wearing leather shoes? Then shut up. … I don’t want to hear this nonsense. Come to me with a paper belt, and I’ll talk to you.” Then Joan, like many a vicious comedian, turned into sad, rejected Joan, the woman whose husband committed suicide and whose mentor, Johnny Carson, never spoke to her again after she got her own rival show, the woman who could never get enough love. “I made people laugh for 50 years. I was put on Earth to make people laugh. My book is funny,” she said, a little pathetically, and stormed off.
Rivers never seemed interested in reflecting too much about her work. When I asked her why she told offensive jokes, she said it was to remind people about things they’d rather forget, such as the Holocaust. Sometimes she would explain by just using a generic quote she attributes to Winston Churchill: “If you make someone laugh, you give them a vacation.” But mostly her style was to keep moving forward. Into her 80s, she was a frightening workaholic. She would rather do any gig—Las Vegas, a cruise—than no gig. When my mother mentioned retirement, Rivers pretend-gagged. Instead she made sure to force herself on the current century, with Fashion Police, and In Bed With Joan, her Web chat series in which she interviewed mostly young female comedians, whom she would often admit she’d never heard of until they’d jumped into the bed.
A lot of us have sentimental feelings about a woman who told anal sex jokes in her 80s. My mother does, and I bet so do many other women of her generation, and the much younger generation of female comedians who can now say “blow job” without anybody flinching. When my mother heard Rivers was sick, she recited to me the many fault lines of Rivers’ life. She could have been remembered as the woman whom Johnny Carson rejected, or whose husband killed himself, or who turned herself into a plastic surgery freak show. Instead, she will be remembered as the woman who, no matter what, always found the punch line.