09/11/2014 12:50 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Joan Rivers: Say Anything -- Except 'Sorry'

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

In this world of the easy out, there are few apologies that are profoundly genuine. Most are as gloriously fake as, well, Joan Rivers after another Botoxifcation.

Too soon? Joan wouldn't have thought so, which is why -- among so much else that has been written since her death last week -- her fiercely unapologetic spine has been widely noted and celebrated.

Joan Rivers ranged over the culture for five decades, carpet-bombing her subjects, turning her ferocity on herself, joking about abortion and homosexuality before just about anyone. In 1965 -- think of it, two years after the assassination of JFK, when gays were still deeply closeted -- her first comedy album was titled Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories. Mr. Phyllis was her hairdresser.

Whether it was joking about Mr. Phyllis or calling Michelle Obama a "tranny" (and the president "gay"), she knew she would offend. Not only did she not care, but she saw it as a sacred comic obligation. And the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, who sang at her funeral, obviously didn't care either.

Paul Schrodt's piece in Esquire's Culture Blog, headlined "Joan Rivers and the Power of Not Apologizing," wisely observes:

The world ... is full of people falling all over themselves to apologize. Some say sorry for truly heinous things, others for trivial things, but the apologies rarely feel genuine in this noisy atmosphere. ... But Rivers was brave enough, and believed in her work enough, to carry on without saying sorry.

Similar sentiments abounded, as if all the guardians of acceptable speech, the rank-and-file of the apology industry, suddenly felt a pang or two of guilt about not appreciating Rivers for what she was.

Like many commentators, the Washington Post's Hank Stuever put together a litany of Joan's targets, starting with herself. She mocked "her own sagging form and Kim Kardashian's infant daughter. ... She said Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO's 'Girls, is fat. ... She made jokes about those poor missing women who were held captive in a house in Cleveland. ... You wanted Joan Rivers to apologize for any of that? Don't hold your breath."

And The Huffington Post summarized the tributes of the current hosts of late-night TV by saying "She Had Guts, Never Stopped Working & Made No Apologies."

This focus on her refusal to say "sorry," even after pushing into audibly gasp-producing precincts, is understandable. It stands in blunt contrast to our era of sandpapered speech, the counterfeit apology, and the manipulative "demand for an apology."

Jim Norton, a comedian himself, wrote in Time that "it seems like if you want attention in 2014, all you need to do is demand an apology from someone, for something. The predictable cycle of outrage and apology is Western Civilization's newest craze."

That Joan Rivers' death has triggered a momentary celebration of the glory of impenitence has encouraged me to wonder: How do we think about creating a conditional framework for the necessity of apology?

If one were going to create a ladder of apology for public figures, some version of the Maimonides Ladder of Charity, I propose the following -- with the highest level as the most apology-worthy. You'd start with those circumstances when your behavior was directly responsible for the physical pain or suffering of others. Like Stalin, or Olive Garden.

The rung below would be when you need to apologize for the acts of those others who've come before you; a notable example is President Clinton's presidential apology for the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which the government actually infected black men with syphilis.

Below that might be when you apologize for inappropriate personal behavior, say, Tiger Woods or Anthony Weiner. A public figure, it can be argued, has a higher level of responsibility -- and is therefore obligated to make their expressions of contemplation and responsibility broadly known.

I don't believe there's a place on the apology ladder for satire or humor, whether it's Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks having to make amends to Holocaust survivors for The Producers, or the seventh-century satirist Archilochus. It was said that Archilochus' invectives against his prospective father-in-law, Lycambes, were so piercing that he hanged himself.

A line of Joan's that has been quoted a lot these days is as direct as you can get: "We don't apologize for a joke. We are comics." In that syntax is the belief that comics are a special group, a tribe, a brand of insurrectionists, like artists and writers, who have special dispensation. It's a dispensation that the licensed fool operated under in the royal court, and which W.H. Auden described in his "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," allowing that "[t]ime ... worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives...."

I like to think of the lack of apology in Joan Rivers' life as more than an absence but a conscious presence, a ringing advocacy for the complexly painful, healing potential of humor. Soon after her husband Edgar committed suicide, Joan was out to lunch with Melissa and said, "If Daddy were here to see these prices, he'd kill himself all over again."

Did she owe herself an apology? We owe a lot in this world, and to this world, but humor never needs an offset. Even when used as a weapon, it is more salvation than scathe, far more valuable and meaningful than an apology that's tossed out of the getaway car of opportunism.