Joan Rivers, Like Nobody Else: We Can't Get Over Her
It’s hard to believe that Joan Rivers will never say another word, funny, obscene, outrageous, funny and funnier or otherwise.
It’s true. Her daughter Melissa, with whom she had a show on television, called “Fashion Police,” made the announcement Sept. 4 that the comedienne had “died peacefully surrounded by family at Mt. Sinai hospital." Rivers had gone into cardiac arrest during what was described as a routine medical procedure a week ago and had been on life support before being moved to a private room yesterday.
You suspect that, if given the opportunity, she might not have gone so gently or quietly into that good night, given her reputation for irreverence and given the fact that she had always something to say about something and everything, not all of it music to the ear.
There really wasn’t anybody like Joan Rivers, who looked, well, fabulous into 81 years, some of that bouffant blonde glamorous look due to plastic surgery, a fact which gave her plenty of material to make fun of. That was one of the things about Rivers—she wanted to do nothing but make people laugh, an ambition which she succeeded at most of the time, leaving behind the echo of loud laughter, louder outrage and wounded egos. She could laugh at herself. She didn’t care, and she didn’t mind.
At some point in her life and lives, she was a stand-up comedian—one of the first of her sex—an actress, a director (of a very funny movie called “Rabbit Test,” starring Billy Crystal in 1978), a fashion judge, a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s "The Tonight Show" (until she wasn’t), a television star, a reality show star (with her daughter) with whom she often fought, a tough-love mother and daughter act. She was a writer, repeatedly telling the story of her life and laughs, in periodic between-the-covers-of-a-book updates. The titles tell the story: “Enter Talking,” “Still Talking,” “I Hate Everybody, Especially Me” and “Diary of a Mad Diva” among many. She was just about always unapologetic, if she happened to offend someone, which was fairly often.
She was also very, very funny, one-of-a-kind funny. Way back when she was in a play called “Driftwood,” in which she played a lesbian with a crush on Barbra Streisand—a pre-“Funny Girl” and “People” Streisand. She and her daughter practically invented the red carpet fashion critique act, in which she skewered bad dresses and the people who wore them, as in “I am wearing Ralph Lauren.”
She was once the subject of one of those infamous roasts, conducted by celebrities, other comics, film actors and the like—Dean Martin has a collection of them. The occasion, as was the case with others, was obscene, merciless and funny. When Rivers showed up to roast others, it very likely caused panic attacks in the hearts of the subjects.
Rivers lives on YouTube, of course, as do so many—there is a very funny sequence with a Johnny Carson appearance, a task she had being doing 21 years at the time, and she brought a dress and hair and a necklace which she’s worn on the first such appearance. “What happened to my hair?” Carson asked. The two had a falling out over the fact that Rivers had neglected to warn Carson about the fact that she was going to be doing a late-night talk show opposite Carson.
There is a fairly recent video of Rivers essentially staring and yelling down a heckler at an appearance in Wisconsin in which she used her credo as a kind of bold comedy statement. She’d made an off-color joke about Helen Keller. A guy in the crowd yelled, “That’s not funny." “Yes, it is,” Rivers shot back. “I had a deaf mother, you stupid ass. … I learned that you have to laugh at everything so you can get over it . You stupid SOB.”
Rivers was inspired by Lenny Bruce. No shrinking violet either, Bruce, too, was like nobody else, and he suffered for it along with his addictions. Rivers got over things and thrived well into an age when you’re not supposed to be thriving, not supposed to be sharp-witted, stomp up and down and just raise hell. What Betty White has done remains a mystery.
You can just imagine what’s happening upstairs, where they have the first gated community. “Maybe we should lock the gate,” someone says. “I’m coming in,” the brash one might say.
“Get over it.” Still, down here, it’s a lot quieter.