No subject taboo for Rivers [Commentary]

As a comedian, Joan Rivers was tougher than most of her male contemporaries

September 05, 2014|Susan Reimer

Comedian Joan Rivers once talked about how she came of age in the mid 1960s with Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and George Carlin in comedy clubs in Greenwich Village, where Johnny Carson's people would troll for new talent.

She recalled that she was the last of the group to make it to "The Tonight Show," the last of the pack "allowed" to break through.

"When I started out, a pretty girl did not go into comedy," she said. "I never was one of the guys, I was never asked to go hang out.

"Looking back, I think it was because I was a woman, I was the very last one of the group they put on the Carson show."

It seems strange that comedy would be sexist. I mean, funny is funny. And a woman has as much material to work with as a black comedian or a Jewish one. Maybe more.

But Rivers, who died Thursday at the age of 81 after an out-patient procedure went wrong, also said that controlling an audience was a "masculine thing." Not only because of the power it requires and the power it delivers into the hands of the performer, but because, she said, an audience will strip you of your femininity.

If comedy was a man's game, Joan Rivers would fit right in at the locker room.

She was raunchy and racy, catty and caustic and crude. She was a tough broad and she outlived Pryor and Carlin and Carson, and was still working after Cosby and Allen have slipped into the shadows. It seems like justice. The hardest working lady in show business was doing stand-up the night before she slipped into a coma.

And you held your breath every time she opened her mouth. Late night talk show hosts and the ladies on "The View" never knew what she would say. It must have been terrifying. She flogged her latest book by deriding Anne Frank, whom she called a lousy one-book wonder.

"And she didn't even finish it! The last line is "I think the Nazis are coming."

She told Jimmy Fallon that she celebrated the end of her decades-long exile from The Tonight Show — an edict issued by Carson after Rivers took a competing host position — with a girlfriend by having a ring inserted into their, um, lady parts. She was in pain but her "girlfriend" — Bruce Jenner — didn't seem to be having any problems.

She made jokes at her husband's funeral. She cracked wise at the funeral home after her sister died. She made jokes about abortion. She made jokes about the Holocaust. She said that Heidi Klum was the hottest looking German since they were pushing Jews in ovens.

Who says stuff like that? Joan Rivers. Who gets away with saying stuff like that? Only Joan Rivers.

She made jokes, she said, because life was just too hard to take it seriously. "That's how I get through life. Life is so difficult, everybody's been through something. But you laugh at it, it becomes smaller."

During the 2010 documentary on her life, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," she was asked what motivated her to continue working and writing books and she held up the blank pages of a date book and said, "This."

Having nothing to do, nowhere to be. Not being in the mix, in the game, in demand. Fear was her motivation, she said, and when she was asked where the fear came from, she said:

"It being over, and I can't get a job in Macy's selling hats."

Joan Rivers made the best jokes about her aging body parts and some of the most tender jokes about her own death, which she fully expected to happen at any moment. Her only regret in life, she told her daughter Melissa, was that the grandson she loved so much wasn't gay. They could have had so much fun shopping, she said.

She had a bucket list, she said, and the first item on it was waking up the next day. But if she didn't, she left these instructions for her funeral.

"I want it to be Hollywood all the way. I don't want some rabbi rambling on: I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents. I want Bobby Vinton to pick my head up and sing "Mr. Lonely." And I want a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyonce's."

I hope she gets what she wants. She sure did when she was alive.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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