Whenever she was asked who her greatest influence was, Joan Rivers responded with characteristic quickness, "Lenny Bruce." This shouldn't come as a surprise to those who know her comedy. Bruce spent his entire career overstepping the limits of what could be said on stage. Thrice tried for obscenity, he pushed the latitudes of comic expression far enough to inaugurate a genre that would come to be defined by extreme license -- stand-up comedy. His was comic license in its purest form: if the joke hit, he killed, and his trenchant social critique took no prisoners ; if it missed, he was killed, left entirely vulnerable on stage, naked but for righteous anger.
It was an extremely dangerous performing style and, for Bruce, an unsustainable one. He was hounded by critics to an early grave (with narcotics lending generous help along the way). Rivers, on the other hand, spent the entirety of her long career on this edge.
Starting out in Greenwich Village, working the same clubs as Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and Rodney Dangerfield, she made her way onto TV variety shows and, finally, to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was Carson who gave her what she perceived as her first big break, naming her the permanent guest host in 1983. When she took an offer from Fox to host a rival late night show three years later, she called Carson, hoping he'd be proud of his protégé. Rivers did not quite recover from the fact that he hung up the phone, never spoke to her again and perhaps worst of all, black-listed her. Her show faltered, lasting a single year. It seemed then that her career had stalled permanently.
Her exclusion from late night TV gave credence to her belief that she spent her performing life on the outside looking in. She had aspired to be a "serious actress" but saw her looks as an impediment and so turned to humor instead. For Rivers humor and, indeed, intelligence were mutually exclusive with sexual desirability. When Carson asked if men found smart women attractive, she instantly retorted "No man has ever put his hands up a woman's dress looking for a library card."
In an interview with Michael Parkinson in 2007, when the veteran host asked her whether it was hard to be an ugly child, she let loose a barrage of one liners: "Hard? Hard? Of course it was fucking hard.... when I was born the doctor looked at me and looked at the afterbirth and handed my mother the afterbirth... my gynecologist examines me over the phone... flies wouldn't land on me if I was covered in sheep shit."
The butt of Rivers' caustic wit was a fixation on image, (hers and others') and she regularly turned deeply painful personal experience into comic fodder. Most painful of all, her husband Edgar's suicide: "I was the one who really caused Edgar's suicide, because, while we were making love, I took the bag off my head." Though she often repeated this joke, it never ceased to shock. And, as with the most provocative comedy, audiences are almost forced to laugh against any qualms, against, even, their better judgement, compelled by the sheer force of her wit.
By force she forged a hugely successful career as a comedian and writer, laying waste to the social taboos in her path. She was the first to joke about abortion to mainstream audiences. Before Roe v. Wade, Rivers was talking about the girl who had had "14 appendectomies." Right to the end, Rivers, the comic's comic, pushed the envelope. Aging became an obsessive and hilarious trope as she joked about Viagra plus, about old men with 36-hour long erections causing their "dry old wives" to burst into flames caused by hours of friction. In her famous "dropping vagina" routine, Rivers highlighted a silver lining in the aging process, not simply a matter of finding a grey slipper on her foot one morning. She encouraged mothers to sit their daughters down and say, "Look, one day your vagina is going to drop but don't worry it's a good thing, it means you can have sex in the bedroom while watching television in the living room" or, in a cruder version, "don't worry it's a good thing, because you can use it to wipe your forehead."
As with Bruce, fearless expression often had a very public downside. When this year she followed up her jibe at the first lady as transgender with a rant on Gaza she was cast in the public image as someone who courted notoriety and (in the eyes of the humourless) deserved to die.
The truth is much sadder. She desperately wanted to remain known and relevant. It is a sad paradox of her career and her success that Rivers constantly feared obsolescence. In the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work she obsesses over the blank pages in her diary, taking almost any gig in a maniacal drive to fill them. She never lost the relentless, desperate energy of one just starting out, using herself as the butt of the joke, to the very end.
That she was a pathbreaker was widely acknowledged, yet when female comedians thanked her for "opening doors for them" her reply would be "Fuck you, I'm still opening doors." Scheduled to tour again this year, Rivers left no page blank and no door closed.