I remember when Joan Rivers died. The matriarch of Fashion Police and the go-to comedian of the red carpet would no longer appear on my TV to dish the most cruel, yet amusing jokes. I thought she was mean, but she was strangely captivating. I never wanted to laugh at what she awful thing she said— but I did anyway. After her sudden death, the news media was suddenly reminded of Joan Rivers’ excellence as a woman and a comedian. News channels and Entertainment shows extolled her life story and comedic bits repeatedly for weeks. But ironically, when she alive, she was constantly criticized for her raunchy, irreverent humor.
Articles everywhere discussed Joan Rivers’ legacy, and I became intrigued by her life. Black and white photographs and videos show a young, thin, facelift-free Joan Rivers; she entered the comedic field as an anomaly. Not only was she a woman— she was a crude one at that. Though her face was forever different due to plastic surgery, and she never had “appropriate” or “kind” humor, she somehow stood for everything women wanted to be: confident, self-deprecating, and self-aware. Without her, Rosie O’Donnel, Sarah Silverman, and Kathy Gifford wouldn’t have their cheeky careers, because Rivers made it okay for women to be lewd and imperfect.
Ironically, in her documentary A Piece of Work, I saw a comic whose life wasn’t always funny. Rivers’ husband committed suicide, she faced ostracism from Late Night, and struggled with depression and bulimia. The tragedies of her past are probably what gave her tenacity to fight for her jokes, including her Holocaust quip about Heidi Klum’s gown at the Oscars:
“The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into ovens.”
She defended herself, declaring nothing is off limits in comedy. She believed the only way to deal with the horrors and pains of life was through laughter.
Joan Rivers is staple of comedy now. She’s probably throwing the middle finger to all her haters as her spirit travels to award shows to determine who wore it better. During a stand-up routine she once remarked,
“My parents hated me, OK? We’re all gonna hear the story, aren’t we? My parents hated me too. All I ever heard growing up was, ‘Why can’t you be like your cousin Sheila? Why can’t you be like you cousin Sheila?!’… Sheila had died at birth.’”
To me, these lines are the perfect combination of truth and humor and sadness, and a perfect reflection of her life. Rest in peace.
Photo of Joan Rivers at Benefit Concert in 2010 | by Bob Jagendorf | I do not own the rights to the photo.