Joan Rivers – honest and funny to the end

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Joan Rivers my god, can we talk?

That woman went out as she would have wanted, dead from complications of plastic surgery, a few weeks after abusing the Palestinians of Gaza in an appalling but still blackly funny series of remarks (‘well they’re phoning in warnings so only the stupid ones are being killed’).

That last intervention will ensure that some of the obsequies will be a little muted in tone — Rivers had a big following among American progressives — but you can’t say she wasn’t even-handed in handing it out.

She had a big mainstream following too, and lost a chunk of that with her infamous ‘9/11 widows’ routine where she speculated that at least some of the desperate housewives of the New York ‘burbs, on seeing on TV the likely incineration of their husbands, had (and she would act this out) stamped their feet up and gone ‘oh yes yes yes thank you thank you’.

The routine was classic Rivers, neither unctuously political nor faux radical — simply cutting through the bullshit to make the simple acknowledgement of the realities of domestic life, and the venal sid of human nature.

She will not get anything like the bizarre outpouring of grief earnd by Robin Williams — but unlike Williams she’d been funny in the last ten years. She was funny to the day she died. Your average episode of her basic cable dogshit show Fashion Police was funnier than anything with a hundred times the money spent on writers and stars.

How can you grieve someone whose job was to regularly appal you? How can you grieve an 81 year old woman who most likely died from a face-lift? My god, it must have snapped off and flown across the operating theatre. If you find that offensive, you wouldn’t like Rivers anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

Rivers was, if you thought she was funny at all, pretty much funny all the time. ‘My God, Jennifer Aniston, I’m so sick of her stupid movies. At the end of the last one even the dog was begging to die’ (Marley and Me), was about the last one I remember from Fashion Police.

Like a lot of joke-based stand-ups she was blessed with the human capacity for forgetting — an hour after seeing Steven Wright or Rivers and laughing fit to piss — and let’s face it, she was in her ’70s and still performing, there’s no way she wasn’t with you there — you’d forgotten all but the last half dozen gags, like the tail-end of a dream. She never did serious, she never did heartwarming (as far as I recall), she just did funny.

But there is a serious point about Rivers, and that is that she was far more of a pioneer and innovator than Robin Williams. A showbiz-crazy New York Jewish gal, she failed for years — at acting, singing, everything — before she found a knack for stand-up. She rose as part of an almost completely forgotten cultural phalanx — the women stand-ups of the ’50s and ’60s, of whom there were many. Household names, too, national stars in the US and in syndication.

Today only Rivers and Phyllis Diller are remembered, partly for longevity and, in Diller’s case, because she reversed the style (which Rivers kept), of being glammed up to the nines. Diller made a joke about her plainness and that insured her a permanent niche.

The others — they styled themselves as Rivers did until her death, and I guess beyond (she’s left instructions for burial — she wants to be depilated), as glamorous, slightly up-class WASPs. The look gave them license — on US tonight shows, in nightclubs and Vegas — to do surprisingly risque material for the time. They were allowed in to the all-male bastion for one big reason — stand-up comedy’s raison d’etre, its cultural role is to ceaselessly restage the mystery of the gendered human being.

The fact that there are men and women, that they find their meaning in each other, and yet are simultaneously mutually intolerable, powers the folk tales of every culture, is projected cosmically, and stand-up is merely our way of simultaneously releasing the tension of that, and pondering the enigma. The pre-’80s female stand-ups did that from the ‘other side’, of the patraichal culture, in a way that could not be subsituted for.

Rivers’s innovation was to sharpen those jokes from the teasing, sometimes fey manner, to a very edgy barely concealed hostility, a lot of it done through the enactment of female jealousy. When the DJ Robin Quivers used an award speech to tearfully recount abuse by her father, Rivers remarked ‘you should have been glad of the attention. I saw you backstage bitch, you looked like a mudslide’, a putdown as carved and detailed as an epigram from Martial.

The other item she added was viscerality, of the female body, the abject – ‘my God when I was pregnant I was so big when my waters broke my dog drowned! And he was in Detroit!’ — contradicted by the high-finish of her appearance. It was an extended performance of the core contradiction of public femininity, and it went for decades. She was not only doing a sort of goyim minstrel act — she was essentially a drag act who happened to be a woman.

God knows I don’t feel a skerrick of sympathy or loss for Rivers herself. But as Billy Wilder said, walking away from Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral ‘worse than no more Lubitsch, no more Lubitsch jokes’.  She died after days in an induced coma, like everyone who watched Anzac Girls. Can we talk?

19 responses to “Joan Rivers – honest and funny to the end

  1. Nailed. The comedian’s comedian. Always funny, from the heart (not ‘shmaltzy’ just in the sense that laughter is good for the heart!) raw, honest and with plenty of chutzpah. We’ll miss her. Great piece Guy.

  2. She’ll greet St Peter with her famous quote: Can we talk? Would that she had woken up to comment on Mount Sinai’s corridor dress code. She turned her perceived childhood rejection into a mantra for all: If you can’t change it, make sure you laugh at it. Here’s hoping she holds the door open for me when it’s my turn.

  3. Oh shhhh!

    Rivers did qualify her statement about Palestinians, claiming she meant “Hamas” instead (“obviously, there are many good Palestinians like Israelis who want peace and Israel’s right to exist.”). Not much of a mea culpa, but there it is. She also pissed off the Anti-Defamation League in the US with some quip about Heidi Klum. Clearly, here was someone who talked from the cuff.

    Might be time to go to YouTube and check some videos, ’cause from what little I’ve heard, she was genuinely funny in that savage, acerbic and very American way. If there’s room in their comedy pantheon for George Carlin, Bill Hicks and Doug Stanhope (“and that’s why I drink”), there’s got to be room for Joan Rivers.

  4. Check out her doco – A Piece of Work (or something like that). Very illuminating about her need to be noticed and fear of rejection. I was a late convert to her humour. I think it was during a guest spot she had on Graeme Norton when I was rolling on the floor that i realised how funny she was. No one could be so funny and foul mouthed and get away with it like she did.

  5. KRM’s ” That ghastly woman” has to be a most notable and telling accolade. Funny ? Only in the weird def. Wagonwheel inventor ” They’ll eat horseshit if you put enough icing on it.”

  6. She wasn’t getting plastic surgery, sorry to ruin your joke. I don’t know what universe vocal cord surgery can be seen as cosmetic.

  7. Funny yes, and I forgave her all the awful things she said in the name of humour except that last ghastly spitting diatribe against the Palestinians. Jokes about dead children are just a step too far for me. And there were far more children killed than Hamas members, even if she did mean Hamas.

    Is it ironic she died from an operation on her vocal cords. ??

  8. As I tweeted earlier today, I was a secret Fashion Police addict. There was simply nothing like it on TV anywhere in the world and as for po-faced US network television — fuggedaboudit! I loved one clip I saw today, when she was talking about being well into her 70s: “No. 1 on my bucket list: wake up!” Sadly, for this unique woman, that’s no longer an option.

  9. Dear Guy,
    There was nothing ‘bizarre’ about mass outpouring of grief for Robin Williams.
    The fact you don’t see it says a lot more about you than you may have meant to reveal.
    Your 10 year slur is unwarranted. Robin was incredibly funny and witty, as interviews and his stage shows of the last 10 prove (Weapons of Self Destruction 2009, Graham Norton 2010, google for more).
    On the other hand Joan Rivers was nothing but a mean spirited and selfish old woman in denial, who’s only humour has been in the relentless put-down of others.
    I suppose that is funny to some, in a camp sort of getting back at others way 🙁
    You wonder why she won’t get the mass out pouring of grief Robin was given, it’s because he was a truly inspiring and generous human being, while Joan was nothing but an eternal misanthrope who endlessly put-down others that didn’t fit her criteria.
    As for her social awareness skills, this verbal spillage of spite and inaccuracy shows it all. I’ll take the words of stadiums full of (20,000) Hasidic Jews protesting against the Israeli atrocities to Palestine, over the insane ravings of someone who is not only ill-informed but may even be an apologist for genocide.
    I won’t be thinking of her again, conversely Robin will float in and out of my mind forever 🙂

  10. Great piece Guy, I think you really nailed her approach: kiss-arse to no-one, just make sure to make em laugh. At themseves, at others, or just the world in general. She was one of a kind and I will not regret (paraphrasing Wilder above) so much her passing as the fact she won’t be ripping on anything on her radar anymore. A fearless talent, vale.

  11. I think there has been an enormous outpouring of grief for Rivers, at least here in the United States, and especially in New York, where she lived. She was incredibly generous, kind, and supportive of the LGBT community – among many others – in this city. I work in showbiz as well, and she was one of the very, very few about whom I never heard an unkind word. And given her stand-up routine, that’s saying something.

  12. not for my money. she just did the same old misogynist “my wife….” and “my mother-in-law…” gags that a lot of 50s male stand ups did. not funny, not ground-breaking, just perpetuating same old same old, whether man or woman delivering them

  13. What an appalling and nasty piece of work. Why use the death of one celebrity to assault the memory of a dead man who’s recently committed suicide? This would be disgusting and classless coming from a News Ltd rag but seeing this garbage on Crikey, an outlet I usually respect, is deeply disappointing.

    Why is it even relevant to compare the two? If you think Rivers is so great, are you not capable of just writing that without firing hateful barbs at a completely unrelated recently-passed celebrity? I’m embarrassed at myself for even clicking on this blatant clickbait, and more embarrassed for Crikey having published it.

  14. Hi finish of her appearance? Williams not funny for the last 10 years? Hello!!!

    A grotesque – almost Nicholson’s Joker following the epic plastic surgery. Have a look at where she started on grainy Carson show….flat chest, bingo wings and thick legs with a howler monkey of a face. We could understand the plastic surgery, even making a joke of it’s excess when it started to pay off….but all court jesters walk the same fine line.

    As their reputation grows they can live on past glories (not exactly Good Morning Vietnam for Rivers) or steadily up the ante to stay out there. That was the Rivers MO …more extreme clown like surgery and cruder jokes. Cross the line and the King public might just off with her head (something which might have improved her appearance)….well if the cap fits…..

    9/11 didn’t make too many American comedians joke menu. In fact it would be a bit like Auschwitz jokes for New Yorkers and the Jews who run half of Hollywood.

    So the Palestinian ( er……Hamas) joke would not lose her too many gigs in America…something she no doubt calculated in advance…if an 81 year old does that sort of calculation.

    Anyway crude extreme jokes about her sisterhood’s appearance juxtaposed against her own grotesque is hardly genius – its a one trick pony…… Robin Williams and Tony Hancock, Peter Sellars, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and all those other manic depressive comic geniuses might not worry about sharing a stage up there with Rivers who definitely would’nt make it with Bob Hope and 72 Virginians guarding the pearly gates.

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