I pushed off the idea of writing this article when I first heard that Joan Rivers, one of my comic icons, was rushed to the hospital after a botched outpatient procedure last week. I didn’t want to think about having to say goodbye to Joan, to bid farewell to yet another icon of an age gone by, a powerhouse who managed to be a cultural force until her last breath. The only solace we can muster is in knowing that, for these ten reasons at least, Joan’s memory will be a blessing.
10. Joan never grew old or gave up.
At 81, she was as attuned to pop culture, politics, and current events as a 20 year old. A self-made fashionista, the comedian never retired, sat in a chair, or gave in to technology. Joan will forever be a role model to women who refuse to trade style for a shapeless moo-moo and an office chair for a rocking chair. In her later years she paired up with Melissa, illustrating that mothers and daughters really can work together and get along. She was a modern Bubbe, surrounded by her children and grandchildren as she took the world by storm.
9. Forget Leno, Conan and Fallon, Joan owned the Tonight Show.
As the story goes, Joan was supposed to take over for Johnny Carson, the comedian who gave her her start. Yada, yada, yada, the network decided it needed a white guy to do the job. Whatever. With her quick wit and powerful sexuality, Joan owned the white guys and wiped the floor with them. Why? Well, as Maude Lebowski once put it, and as Joan so aptly illustrates in this routine, some men are rather uncomfortable with the word “vagina.”
8. Joan was a feminist before Steinem stomped on the term.
What Joan represents is power of voice, which she developed for years before Betty Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women. Jewish-American women (including Friedan) already had a startling candor and audacity, producing the shrill ethnic stereotype of the “Jewish seagull.” Joan turned the seagull into a lioness. Although her self-deprecating acceptance of the iron law of female beauty initially put her at odds with the women’s movement, Joan must be recognized as an iconic feminist role model. Everything she says or does, even when following her killer instinct for marketing and publicity, is about personal empowerment and ferocious independence. Her work ethic alone is a constant inspiration.
7. She had a gift for embracing female sexuality with a mocking glare.
Joan was the happy middle between demure housewife and bra-burner. Smart enough to pull off sassy, she wasn’t afraid to let her intellect shine:
In the 1950s, the only woman daring to do stand-up was Phyllis Diller, who dressed like a clown in a fright wig to erase any hint of sex appeal but whose body language was as coolly contained as her mentor Bob Hope’s. Joan Rivers, in contrast, took Lenny Bruce’s slouching, surly menace and converted it into a hyperkinetic prowling of the stage, from which she launched abrasive provocations. 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?”
6. Joan never pulled any punches or played favorites, even with her own ego.
Joan, grand purveyor of humility, was the first to mock her own vanity and the industry that rewarded it:
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”).
5. Joan knew how to play the PR game.
Want good public relations advice? Learn from the career of Joan Rivers. One minute she’s in, the next she’s out, but Joan Rivers always managed to rise again to claim newer, better real estate in the public sphere. She didn’t do it by kowtowing to public opinion, either.
4. She used humor as both a shield and a sword.
Paglia noted that Rivers was no poser:
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).
3. Joan taught us that being funny is a strength that allows us to survive.
Criticized for her brazen humor, Rivers would respond with tenacious wisdom. No stranger to suffering, she recognized the inherent power in a good sense of humor in the face of adversity. The Bible says that God laughs at His enemies. Joan Rivers explained why.
2. She was a good Jewish girl.
Joan was, at heart, a Bubbe. A good Jewish mother, a Zionist, a lover of humanity. No one can be that humorously rough around the edges without having a big heart underneath. She never hid her Judaism or belied it, she simply lived it. In an era when religious and ethnic identity became a costume that could be as easily worn as it was thrown away, Joan allowed her Judaism to permeate through thought and action without blinking an eye.
1. Joan told it like it is.
This is why I will most miss Joan and those of her generation: They were honest. Unfettered by political correctness, social disapproval, or cultural consternation, Joan illustrated what it means to be a fully self-actualized human being. Rife with opinions, emotions, and the ability to reason, she never asked that you agree with her, only that you respect her right to her own mind. And how refreshing was that?