Saturday, September 6, 2014

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers

Can we talk?

There's something about the outpouring of sentimental tributes to the late Joan Rivers that just feels wrong. The Rivers celebrations have shown a disconcerting tendency to sanitize this messy, maddening, and sometimes appalling human being. In truth, Rivers was a profoundly unsettling figure, and if you were paying any attention at all, it's almost impossible not to have deeply ambivalent feelings about her.

For one thing, in their apparent efforts to turn this acid-tongued comic into a lovable, albeit slightly naughty grandma, many of these encomiums grossly misrepresent the nature of her humor, which was utterly scabrous. For example: in her recent book, Rivers charged HBO with committing "crimes against humanity" for putting Lena Dunham's "fat ass on display." That is far from the only time Rivers viciously mocked Dunham's weight. Earlier this year, she claimed that Dunham is "sending a message out to people saying, 'It's okay. Stay fat. Get diabetes. Everybody die, lose your fingers.'"

Some critics claim to discern a humanistic project behind Rivers' comedy of cruelty. For example, Mitchell Fain argued that Rivers "says things out loud what we’re all thinking, in our worst moments," and that by doing so, "the monster gets smaller." What seems far likelier is that the monster gets socially sanctioned. For decades, a staple of Rivers' act have been nasty jokes about female celebrities who are fat, stupid, or slutty, and male celebrities who are allegedly gay. Rarely did she talk smack about straight male celebrities. I'm a longtime Rivers watcher and I'm hard-pressed to think of any prominent examples.

That brings us to Joan Rivers' politics, which mostly were horrible. On the plus side, she was pro-choice, an early advocate for gay rights, and she voted for Obama. On the negative side, there is pretty much everything else. Rivers was a lifelong Republican and though she never talked a lot about her right-wing views, she didn't exactly make a secret of them, either. She hated the movie Precious, not for aesthetic reasons, but for frankly political ones (“I thought, Oh, get a job! Stand up and get a job!”). She whined about paying taxes. Just last month, she voiced strong support for Israel's military actions actions in Gaza and said that the Palestinians "deserve to be dead." She adored Ronald Reagan and shamelessly fawned over the British royal family. When writers on her show Fashion Police, who were working full-time and making only $500 a week, went on strike last year, she refused to support them. At times, her humor was outright racist. In her 2012 comedy special, Joan Rivers: Don't Start with Me, she smeared Mexicans as ugly and Chinese women as man-stealing sluts.

It's hardly surprising that Rivers career began to really take off during the Reagan era in the 1980s. That was when the increasingly fashion-conscious Rivers traded in simple shifts for haute couture evening gowns. She also abandoned her populist everywoman comedy schtick, which had focused on her own experiences as a wife and mother, in favor of material about the rich and famous. It fit the zeitgeist of a culture growing ever more celebrity-obsessed. But rather than skewering our society's misogyny and crass materialism, Rivers' humor tended to embrace it.

Rivers is being post-humously claimed for feminism in many quarters. But again, Rivers' relationship to, and legacy for, feminism is far from simple. There's been a lot of talk about how Rivers "opened doors" for the female comics who followed in her wake. And while it's true that she contributed to that important project, she was hardly the first or only woman who did. Before Rivers' hilariously foul-mouthed routines about gynecological exams, women like Sophie Tucker, Pearl Williams, and Belle Barth paved the way with raunchy, "adult only" stand-up acts that centered on women's sexual experiences.

And although Rivers' early routines called bullshit on the "happy housewife" myth, Phyllis Diller had already gotten there first. I don't mean to suggest that Rivers' work in these female traditions was unimportant; clearly, she was huge. But just as Rivers' example broker barriers for younger female comics, earlier generations of comediennes had helped make the career of Joan Rivers possible, as well. We shouldn't forget that.

Then there's the matter of female self-hatred, which was a powerful element of Rivers' comedy from the beginning of her career to the end. Rivers frequently joked about how unattractive she was, how she lacked sex appeal, etc. Never mind that, actually, in her prime, she was kinda foxy and that she never seemed to have a problem attracting men (she had several affairs during her long marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, including one with no less a sex symbol than Robert Mitchum, and had at least three serious relationships after that marriage ended with Rosenberg's suicide). Female comics of Rivers' generation and before often trafficked in jokes about how fat or hideous they were (see: Diller, Totie Fields). That's understandable as a tactic, but it seems a tad hypocritical, given that the reality of Rivers' sex life belied her "I'm so ugly I can't get laid" schtick. Rivers’ self-hatred seemed all too real, but it also was far from the whole story.

And yet, and yet, and yet – in spite of the frequent cruelty of her humor, and the shitty values and politics it embodied, I was also inordinately fond of Joan Rivers. I got a huge kick out of her campy, larger-than-life, “Can we talk?” let’s-cut-the-bullshit stage persona. I appreciated the way her humor spoke to women's experiences like housework, pregnancy, gynecological exams, and the aging female body. She overcame so much -- the overwhelming rejection she faced early in her career, the tragedy of her husband's suicide, devastating professional setbacks later on, bankruptcy – all experiences that would have crushed a less resilient woman. Her energy and work ethic were phenomenal to behold. She was by every account that I have read warm, gracious, and generous to her fans and employees. She may have referred to herself as a "mad diva," but wasn't the type to cop an attitude.

Throughout her career, Rivers demonstrated the creativity to constantly reinvent herself, and to adapt to the era of the internet and reality TV. She was savvy enough about the latest trends in fashion and pop culture to help make a show like Fashion Police a big hit. Her stand-up act included jokes about Twitter, Netflix, and ass-fucking. The woman kept up. Most people her age do not, even if they're in show business. Take, for example, her contemporaries like Mel Brooks (whose most recent projects involved staging Broadway versions of his decades-old movie triumphs) and Woody Allen (whose films have not realistically incorporated any cultural or technological developments occurring after about 1972).

Also? She was often very, very funny. Not every joke landed, but those that did killed. Even in her final days, she was getting off good ones. Of the unfortunate ensemble Lena Dunham wore to the Emmys two weeks ago, she said, "That dress has more pink than Tom Cruise saw in all three marriages." That's a one-liner any comic could be proud of, let alone an 81-year old.

One of my favorite Rivers moments was in 2011 on Louis C,K.'s Louie show, where the comedienne's wonderfully vulgar, life-affirming gusto and worldly wisdom brought the mopey Louie out of his self-pitying funk. She told him, basically, be grateful that you're working. Enjoy your success while you have it, because it won't last. Life probably won't get any better, but you will get better. In short, she was awesome. The excellent 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is another must for anyone who wants to understand Rivers.

So yeah, I think Joan Rivers was pretty great. But I also think she was a monster. She was a mass of unresolvable contradictions, someone who does not fit easily into neat little categories. The misogyny that was so essential to her act makes it difficult to claim her for feminism. But, in spite of efforts such as Peggy Noonan's, it's not any easier to claim her for conservatism. The way this loud-mouthed broad reveled in obscene language and sexually explicit humor -- hell, the way her entire public persona transgressed every notion of proper female decorum -- make it impossible to reconcile her with traditional values.

In the end, it's precisely Joan Rivers' darkness and her unparalleled gift for making everyone feel squirmingly uncomfortable that I find so fascinating. The woman never lost her edge. Yes, Joan Rivers deserves to be honored and remembered. But let's be honest about the very mixed legacy she leaves. Rivers herself, who was capable of assessing her career with admirable objectivity (at gigs, she was introduced as "the best act in her price range"), and who tended to viewed ass kissers with contempt, would probably agree.


  1. i am unable to find corroborating cites for this, but the story goes that another rotten thing rivers did to johnny carson was use the jokes that the tonight show writers wrote for her stint as guest host as her own on the road w/o attribution or payment.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I have been hoping all week for someone to point out her hostile, rude, and strident character.

  3. Kinda hated Joan Rivers, but let's be honest and point out that a LOT of comedians are miserable people, with shitty manners and terrible politics and the lot. She was no better and no worse than every male comic of her generation. Which is to say, much as I hated her, she was a pretty impressive person.

  4. Thank you. I've been waiting for someone to say something like this since the *de mortuus nil nisi bonum" stuff started rolling in. She said mean things for laughs -- let's call her an intelligent Sarah Palin, at her worst. Which is pretty worst.

  5. I don't have any problem with "stand up and get a job," but everything else here seems on target. In the current atmosphere, your essay reminds me a little of Hunter Thompson's refusal to canonize Nixon.

  6. This is well said.

    However, can I make a format suggestion that hopefully doesn't come off the wrong way? The blue hypertext is nearly unreadable in places because of the picture background. Perhaps an increase in contrast, or only using the orange text for hyperlinks could be an option. Again, not trying to tell you how to run your site, it was just a bit difficult. Thanks.

  7. Do you know how difficult it is to read white text on black background? I've never understood why some bloggers use this combo. Even ones I would like to read, I just move on. And then you toss in blue links that are impossible to read...

  8. Funny how you try to paint Rivers as a "life-long-Republican" and imply that she was some right-wing ogre, when she was actually a rabid pro-abort and far from conservative.

    Frankly, I've never really heard anything funny from her mouth either. Good riddance.

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