Growing up, I wasn’t necessarily a Joan Rivers fan. She was just the loud, scary looking lady on TV whom I couldn’t understand through the heavy-laden bleeps. Joan wasn’t what you would call “kid friendly.” In fact, she was usually teetering on a very thin line of being “adult friendly” too. In recent years, a common interpretation of Joan’s comedy has been that it is tone-deaf, stale, and just downright mean. So why celebrate this woman whom has made a career of tearing other people (women, specifically) down?
Joan Rivers was an insult comic, a genre of comedy mired in festive abuse of — well, everyone, really. The great thing about successful comics is that nothing is off-limits and everything is funny. In an episode of her web series “In Bed With Joan” featuring her protégé Sarah Silverman, Joan once commented, “If I think to say it, then it’s not off-limits.”
Traditionally a boys club, insult comedians run the gamut from old timers like Don Rickles and Jackie Gleason, to modern-day incarnations like Seth MacFarlane and the “Roast” specials on Comedy Central. Joan rose to stardom in 1965, where her brash, unadulterated comedic chops made her an instant hit as a guest star on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She went on to host her own rival program,The Late Show, and remains the only woman to host her own late night talk show on network television. Let me state that again for the cheap seats: it’s 2014, and Joan Rivers is the only woman to host her own late night talk show on network television. While the laughability of Joan’s more scornful jokes is debatable, her longevity and influence is certainly not. It’s paramount to remember Joan for her path-forging efforts for women — not just in comedy, but in the media as a whole.
It’s no big secret that women in the public eye are taught precisely how to walk, talk, dress, and act — and are then scored daily on their ability to do all within the fickle confines of male-gazed acceptability. Media training is a side effect of stardom, and starlets are groomed within an inch of reality to be perceived as waxen, unattainable screen sirens. Joan’s iconic plastic surgery — an extreme, if pragmatic, measure to help keep her looking young for the business — was so preposterously age-defying that it seemed to comment on itself. As Rivers once said, “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.” That’s the thing about Joan: she was quick to beat the rest of the world to the punch. She knew her age, she knew the world knew her age, she wasn’t trying to fool anyone. As a woman there is so much controversy which comes with growing older, so much resistance and vociferous judgment, so much fret over being cast aside for a newer model. Joan’s answer was one of modification. Joan Rivers wasn’t going to give anyone a reason to make fun of her; she would carry that burden herself.
More than her groundbreaking career of “firsts,” Joan’s real gift to us is the allowance to stop being so goddamn perfect. Her messy life, her brazen, cutting comedic style, her open book demeanor was something many women didn’t even know they needed to see in the media until she illuminated it. She inspired a generation of women, everyone from Kathy Griffin and Chelsea Handler to Lisa Lampanelli and Roseanne, to buck gender norms and sling mud in the trenches of the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club of stand-up. Griffin and Handler have borrowed plentifully from Joan’s celeb-mongering cheap shots, whereas Lampanelli and Roseanne have banked on the loud, merciless caricature that eschews the trappings of domesticity and docility. In no small part, Rivers was a part of that creation.
In the ongoing fight for gender equality, those that rise to the occasion are often the black sheep. Joan mused deftly about this occurrence, stating, “I’m in nobody’s circle, I’ve always been an outsider.” The best clowns are the loneliest. There are some people with an extraordinary talent for converting pain into laughter, and no one was better suited for it than Joan. Because no one was off-limits, because she defied every threshold of the commonplace woman, her jokes were almost always scathing, and yes, sometimes remarkably ignorant. But it was the small, unmasked moments — like those found in her critically-acclaimed 2010 documentary A Piece of Work — that won me over, that win us all over. Under all of that silicone, silver-tongued deprecation was a survivor that beat the odds to stay relevant, employed, and monumental at 81 years-old. Impressive is a massive understatement.
The world needed someone like Joan, so wildly unbridled in her actions, to counterbalance the pea-sized amount of permission society gives women, and many women give themselves. She was not the churlish, graceless grandmother we deserved, but the churlish, graceless grandmother we needed to hold up the mirror.