Oh man. The hits just keep on comin’.
Less than a month after we had to unexpectedly say goodbye to Robin Williams, we lost another comedy legend with the passing of Joan Rivers. It’s hard to believe that a woman that was so full of life is gone; I have no idea what whatever higher power above us is up to, but he/she is obviously putting together one hell of a show in heaven. There’s no other way to say it – this one stings, especially since the recent reports gave the impression that Rivers’ condition may have been improving. The last info that I heard was that she had moved out of intensive care, so to see that she passed away was the worst possible news. Just when I thought that she was going to be OK, she was gone.
Joan Rivers is among my earliest memories of comedy in general, but she is also one of the first female comics that I was exposed to. Comedy has always been dominated by men, but thanks to trailblazers like Rivers I never thought that it was something that women couldn’t do. Sure, I noticed that there were a lot fewer female faces in stand-up, but women like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller were so funny that they helped people realize that comedy was not just a man’s world and that female comics could easily go toe to toe with male comics. Women comedians could be aggressive and confessional, just like their male counterparts – the fact that this doesn’t seem revolutionary to us is a credit to women like Joan. She challenged the conception of what it was appropriate for a female comic to talk about and helped open up doors for those that followed her. Funny is funny and Rivers made people realize that; without Joan Rivers, there may not have been Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer or any of the other hundreds of women working in stand up today. One joke at a time, Rivers helped break down barriers for women in comedy and helped redefine the idea of what comedy could be. Joan Rivers was one tough broad and I have no doubt that she would take that as the compliment that it is intended to be.
One of the things I loved most about Rivers was her fearlessness; she was always chasing the laughter and would look for the joke in the most unlikely of places. She was edgy and pushed the envelope – she did not worry about offending people. To achieve greatness in comedy you have to be willing to take risks and Rivers was not afraid to step on a few toes along the way. Rivers spoke her mind and crossed lines and while I didn’t always agree with her, I always admired her willingness to “go there.” I subscribe the school of thought that if done well, you can make a joke about anything and that is partially thanks to my early exposure to Joan Rivers. I’d much rather watch a comic that takes chances and fails than someone who always plays it safe. You might not have liked what Joan had uttered, but you always knew where you stood with her. She pulled no punches and said what she had to say, without worrying about what you thought about it. She was ballsy and brash and more often than not, ridiculously funny.
Joan could be hard on other people, but she was also hard on herself. Rivers taught me about the value of self-deprecating humor; if you are willing to make fun of yourself, it gives you more license to make fun of others. Rivers was the first to point out her flaws and make jokes at her own expense. Self-deprecating humor makes some people uncomfortable, but I see great power in it; making fun of yourself makes it a lot less fun for other people to do it. Because Joan could turn her focus on herself, it made it harder to stay mad at her when she said some less than charitable things about other people. With Joan, there was nothing that was off limits and if that included saying mean things about her in the process, so be it. Joan Rivers didn’t always have an easy life – her husband committed suicide in 1987 and she had a very public falling out with Johnny Carson – but she showed the power of laughter in confronting even the worst that life has to offer. “If you can laugh about it, you can live with it.” I am so glad that she got to appear on The Tonight Show again before she passed after being banned for 30 years.
Rivers had her ups and downs in her career, but her work ethic was unparalleled. The woman was always hustling and reinventing herself; many tried, but you couldn’t keep Joan Rivers down. She constantly wrote jokes and she had a drive that I envied. Take away her talk show – she’ll design a jewelry line; count her out and she’ll make you sorry. Some found Rivers’ penchant for taking any and all opportunities that came her way off-putting, but in my eyes she was a survivor. She was going to make it and stay relevant no matter what and if she didn’t, it wasn’t going to be from lack of trying. To still be part of the pop culture lexicon at 81 is a testament to her scrappiness. She was a force of nature that simply could not be denied. If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work for an inside glimpse of Rivers ambition and motivation.
Joan Rivers was the kind of person that you kind of always secretly believed would live forever; it is really hard to believe that she is gone. I’m kicking myself for not going to see her the last time she was in the area. I put it off, assuming that there would be plenty more opportunities to see the legend on stage. Sadly, that is not the case. My heart breaks for her daughter Melissa, who she was extremely close to, and her grandson Cooper. I imagine having Joan Rivers as a mother/grandmother wasn’t always easy, but I guarantee that it was never boring.
Rest in peace, Joan.
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