By virtue of being a gay man who exists in the world, I was deeply moved, profoundly inspired, and endlessly entertained by Joan Rivers. Her voice sounded like it took two loads and three shots of Jack all at the same time. Her face was an eerie amalgam of flesh, plastic and collagen. Her wardrobe dripped in a bizarre mash-up of designer clothing and QVC jewelry. All of this framed and adorned one of the most blessedly filthy mouths that has ever graced the Earth. Yes, Joan was an absolute original.
She’s gone now having ascended to heaven to hold court with the departed spirits of Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams. I like to think that she’s doing the wheelbarrow with Andy Kaufman right now. She will be forever missed.
Rather than crying over a corpse, I think it would be far more sporting to take a moment to reflect on just how truly unique and special she was. Though Joan has inspired and informed countless lady comics during her half-century-long career, there can be no inheritors to her kingdom. There was Joan and only Joan. And so it will always be.
Joan Rivers was always a lady, even when she was being a foul mouthed cunt. See, Joan Rivers was never influenced by modern day feminism. She helped create modern day feminism. Joan started her career before the National Organization for Women even existed. Joan Rivers wasted no time brandishing rhetoric or marching with picket signs. Rather than endlessly talking about women’s equality, Joan Rivers embodied women’s equality. There was no template for her comedy. There was no women’s group congratulating her for working twice as hard as her male peers. Joan Rivers had to be so visionary as to create her own template, her own genre of comedy. This was an awe inspiring testament to an indomitable will. Despite all the flattery that has poured out after her passing, we still have not truly comprehended the awesome breadth and scope of her accomplishments. She was the ultimate feminist and she accomplished everything without ever once brandishing a single academic buzzword or tired liberal platitude. Her actions spoke infinitely louder than academic jargon ever could.
Despite her herculean efforts to demonstrate, not articulate but demonstrate, women’s equality, Joan frequently found herself at odds with feminism throughout her career. The main reason why another female comic will never truly inhabit Joan’s realm is that they are all invariably influenced in some way by feminism. Feminism was and remains a hugely important social movement, but like all political movements it is hopelessly awash in stigma and dogma. Feminism works to reaffirm social and political identities; comedy, at its core, works to destroy them.
Comedy serves no master. It’s commonplace for most contemporary artists to pander in some way to the tenets of liberalism, but art and politics have never had a happy marriage. Most political movements are built in some way on an idealized version of the people who created them. It works chiefly for self-perpetuation and by doing so, invariably compromises its sagacity. Feminism and its sister LGBT political movements are no different. The bedrock of Joan’s humor was the delivery of unpleasant truths. A careful examination of Joan’s humor reveals a view of gender as a few immutable truths compounded by a hell of a lot of bullshit. One gets the impression that as much as things change, they stay just as much the same. If you’re the type of person who agitates for hope and change, it’s rather inconvenient to be reminded of that.
Upon her passing, Andrea James noted, “Now that Joan Rivers has died, we should retire the word ‘comedienne’ in her honor. She was the last one. Every female comic since is simply a comedian.” I think this is very true. Some feminists criticized Rivers for what was perceived to be an endorsement of compulsory femininity. There is a sense that Joan felt that, on some level, men would always be men and women would always be women. Joan was a product of her time. She never altered her act to endorse the long fashionable belief that gender was entirely a cruel social construct. Had she compromised herself and her humor, she would have stopped being Joan. Thank God she was such a stubborn bitch.
There was a sense among many that Joan was mean. There were even laughable assertions of misogyny. Joan Rivers has done more for women’s equality than all of her activist detractors put together. Joan Rivers nearly single handedly created a template that all bawdy funny ladies in some way work from. The woman was making abortion jokes long before Amy Schumer made it passé …and in the 60’s, no less! The balls. The absolute fucking balls. It’s still so hard to believe that she did it. Joan mocked everything. Everything. And she proved just how profoundly healing that could be. Joan recognized that suppressing things gave it their power. Joan showed us how comedy could empower and heal. This was an essential cornerstone to her work and a precious gift to her audience.
Yet still she was derided as backwards and mean. Jennifer Lawrence provided a typically uncritical analysis of Joan’s work when she criticized her popular TV show Fashion Police for contributing to a hostile social environment for women. Lawrence was, for a brief time, hailed as a feminist hero for calling out lookism, sizeism and sexism in her industry. I call it bullshit. Of course Fashion Police was mean. Of course Fashion Police was misogynistic. Fashion Police was all these things because the world is mean and the world is misogynistic. Fashion Police had the nerve to treat the industry as it was. Any celebrity who decries lookism in their industry while simultaneously benefitting from it is a twit. Joan Rivers was not mocking common women for having the audacity to appear gauche or gain weight. Rather Joan Rivers made a career out of calling out the world’s most cosseted and privileged people. The beautiful people featured on Fashion Police all made a killing out of pandering to the whims of a shallow, stupid industry. These people were playing a game, pure and simple. That’s all it ever was and Joan intimately knew that from her decades-long time within it. It would be far more pernicious to pretend that the industry was, or could ever be, anything different. Joan had no interest in entertaining the preposterous notion that these people aren’t benefiting from the same twisted social mores that they professed to decry. Cutting a Kristie Alley fat joke from Fashion Police would have no effect on the social realities that created and perpetuate sizeism. Joan’s jokes were a way of calling attention to the world as it really is, savage and cruel, and humor is our greatest weapon for surviving such a world.
For Joan, jokes were jokes. They were reflections of an absurd world and she adamantly refused to apologize for them. Joan started to gain the ire of an increasingly hyper sensitized LGBT community towards the end of her career. This is a sad irony as Joan was one of the LGBT community’s greatest allies. Joan was completely aloof to political fashions. She mocked everything and everyone, for that is the way of the comic. There was sometimes an attitude that Joan should have left some people alone, that if Joan just didn’t mock this one group or this one thing everything would be fine. To Joan, this was pity. And pity was death to her. Joan Rivers had an unwavering respect for gay people. Even before her death it was not uncommon to see Joan’s smirking, plastic face popping up in a drag queen’s twitter feed. Unlike present fashion, Joan never pandered to the gay community. Instead she worked with them as equals, as peers, and created art that was relevant to them. Whether it was her late night talk show, her daytime talk show, her late career web series or simply guesting at a Gay Pride, Joan never hesitated to engage gay artists as anything less than her peers. May we never forget that one of Joan’s first career breaks was playing Barbra Streisand’s lesbian admirer in a play during the late 50’s. Yes, in the motherfucking 50’s. And playing a lesbian was her idea. For years Joan Rivers has enjoyed a semi-mythical status as a folk hero amongst slutty queers. That reputation was well deserved.
Reflecting on the way of the comic, Joan remarked, “We don’t apologize for a joke. We are comics. We are here to make you laugh. If you don’t get it, then don’t watch us.” It’s hard for more sensitive people to understand Joan’s view that laughter always justified the means. If Joan was truly driven solely by celebrity and fame as her detractors alleged she would have long since compromised herself for mass appeal. Joan never apologized, never changed because working was her greatest reward. For her to stop working was to stop living. It is fitting that Joan’s last gig was in a small comedy club the night before the ill-fated throat operation that killed her. Her work ethic was awe inspiring; she was a millionaire many times over and had absolutely no financial incentive to perform at small comedy venues. She did it for the love of comedy and the love of her work. Her work was her life and she desperately loved life. Joan Rivers may have been an avid proponent for self-induced miscarriages, but her unyielding enthusiasm for living was one of the most genuinely pro-life aesthetics that I’ve ever seen.
Everyone has seen Joan Rivers on the red carpet, or on a comedy special or, if you were really lucky, at one of her stand-up appearances, but to truly understand Joan Rivers you have to watch her documentary. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was released in 2010. It remains the most intimate and revealing portrait of her genius. I have a special place in my heart for that movie. I was at a particularly shitty time in my life. My plan B, plan C, and plan D had all fallen out. I was unemployed, crazy and so incredibly broke that I couldn’t afford drugs. In short, I was miserable. I wandered into the theater in a daze. I was at that very special place in life where I just thought, “This is it. I guess I have to figure out how I’m going to kill myself.” I sat there, absorbing Joan’s filthy genius. Joan knew death intimately. Her husband killed himself in 1987 and it devastated her. She fittingly blamed herself remarking, “My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head.” Towards the end of the movie I started to hear a little raspy voice in my head saying, “Kill yourself? What kind of fucking idiot are you? Think of all the cocks you could be sucking instead!” Wise counsel, Joan. For Joan life was the greatest gift and that’s why she never stopped working. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was Joan’s chance to explain her life and work, which she did with her own inimitable mixture of savage intellect and cunning wit. Do yourself a favor and watch it.
It’s only appropriate that I end with Joan’s stand-up. Joan hated ass kissing (oops) and preferred to let her work speak for itself. I present to you Joan’s monologue at the end of her Comedy Central roast. This is a master at work. She fittingly declared her intention to never stop, citing that comedy needs her. She was right then and it’s still true. We fucking need Joan Rivers and we are poorer for having lost her.
Joan worked and worked, struggled and struggled, but she’s at peace now. Though I will always miss her jokes and antics, I can take heart in knowing that she’s up in heaven now, cracking abortion jokes with the angels.