Comedienne Joan Rivers died yesterday at the age of 81, after a medical procedure to repair her vocal cords resulted in complications including cardiac arrest. She was not the first successful female stand-up comedienne (in fact she was nominated for a Tony Award in 1994 for her Broadway performance as comedienne Sally Marr, mother of Lenny Bruce, in Sally Marr . . . and Her Escorts), but she was probably the first to achieve mainstream national success comparable to her male counterparts, hitting the big time in 1965 as a frequent guest on the Tonight Show, appearing nine times on the program in that year alone.
Brash and petite, Rivers was known for her tart comments about fellow celebrities, taking them to task for their many foibles, absurdities, and pretensions. Rivers eventually came under fire in the politically correct 1990s and 2000s, especially for her jokes about celebrities’ weight problems and her mocking of the increasingly fawning and uncritical attitude of the media and much of the public toward famous people whom she knew to be of at-best dubious character and often serious villainy.
She never backed down under the fire of such criticism, instead firing back that her humor, although it seemed gossipy in mocking well-known individuals personally, was serious satire that pointed out hypocrisy and self-importance among the nation’s privileged elites. In 2013 Rivers defended her comedy style in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, stating,
I’ve learned to have absolutely no regrets about any jokes I’ve ever done. I got a lot of flack for a joke I made about Heidi Klum and the Nazis [“The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens”], but I never apologized for it. I said Justin Bieber looked like a little lesbian — and I stand by it: He’s the daughter Cher wishes she’d had. You can tune me out, you can click me off, it’s OK. I am not going to bow to political correctness. But you do have to learn, if you want to be a satirist, you can’t be part of the party. Meaning, you can’t go horseback riding with Jackie O in Central Park if you’re going to make a joke about her that night.
In that same article, Rivers turned her guns directly on her attackers: “Mick Jagger said, “F– ’em if they don’t get the joke.” And I love him. That comes with age: Knowing it’s their problem, not mine.”
Also in the Hollywood Reporter in 2013, Camille Paglia captured the essence of Rivers’s humor: the simple courage of her convictions. Paglia writes:
In her most recent book, I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me, Joan demonstrates her scathing rejection of humanitarian pieties and political platitudes. Unlike virtually all American comedians these days, she never preaches to the liberal choir for easy laughs. On the contrary, she goes against the grain and overtly offends and repels. She has endeared herself to free-thinking gay men by her pitiless attacks on political correctness. She cracks jokes about Nazis, mass murderers, the handicapped, the homeless, the elderly, starving children, racial minorities, stroke victims and even suicides (despite the suicide of her second husband, Edgar Rosenberg).
Joan’s relationship with the entertainment industry remains uneasy: In an era of soft celebrity journalism, she treats stars with an impish mockery that borders on cruelty, as when she dogged Elizabeth Taylor and Kirstie Alley about their weight. Her feuds (as with her former benefactor, Johnny Carson) are infamous. But ever since Greco-Roman times, true satire stings and bites. Joan is just as mean about herself, admitting her sexual inferiority complex and countless plastic surgeries (“I’ve undergone more reconstruction than Baghdad”).
That last sentence seems to me a bit misleading, in suggesting Rivers was troubled and unhappy in her personal life. On the contrary, she appears to have been a generally happy person despite suffering at least the average amount of personal travails for a modern-day American (a hurtful betrayal by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson after she started her short-lived FOX television show, the suicide of her husband, health problems late in life), and she gave much to charity.
Paglia does, however, perfectly capture the fierce logic and integrity of Rivers’s comedy: “She lambasted the audience for its sentimentality or hypocrisy and insisted on comedy’s mission as a vehicle of harsh truths: ‘Please. Can we talk?'”
Thus Rivers’s jokes about herself do not appear to be motivated by any kind of self-loathing. On the contrary, they show integrity and good personal character: in her humor, Rivers did not spare herself, which was the right thing to do. She represented attitudes that we need much more of today: a belief in universal standards of conduct, a respect for the blindness of justice, and a refusal to kowtow to the mighty. In her way, Joan Rivers was a little heroine. May she rest in peace.