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I adored Joan Rivers. Adored her as though I knew her. She will be remembered in most of the obituaries as a pioneering woman entertainer. There was no comedienne like her before -- Lucille Ball and charming slapstick was the prototype.
Since Joan, there's been Rosanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, Sandra Benhardt, Sarah Silverman not to mention the current crop of people like Chelsea Handler. The irony is that, while Joan broke the requirement that women comics need to act and look a certain way, she internalized that she was being judged on her looks and took to plastic surgery. I think we should all pause and consider that irony.
In my mind, she should also be remembered one of the last practicing insult comics of a previous era. Pioneered by folks like Don Rickles and Jackie Mason, Joan fit very much within that millieu. There are still some around, but no one that carries the same Borscht-belt air of a Catskills past and that actually still hit the clubs, week after week. This is what rubbed some people the wrong way with her Oscars shtick. And shtick it was. These days, self-deprecation is the acceptable form of laughing at misfortune (e.g., Louis C.K.), but when Joan came up, that was how comedy was done, and she was one of the last to do it that way.
Watching her movie, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, also gave me a sincere appreciation for who she was as a person. First and foremost, she worked tirelessly. I can't emphasize that enough. She had the drive and ingenuity like no one I've seen. If she had had a head for invention, she'd have been Elon Musk; if she were a business person, she'd have been Steve Jobs.
She was also incredibly generous. She employed her friends, gave them jobs and was not stingy with money.
Why was she still working at 77? As far as I can tell, 3 reasons.
First, because of this drive.
Second, because she felt like she had to support all these people in her life.
Lastly, but not least, she did it because she had to. As she told Louis CK when she was on his show, she did it because it's not a job, it was a calling:
I hope she will be remembered for that.
Finally, she will be remembered for having exquisite precision in being able to land a joke about sensitive subjects, where you can't help but shrug your shoulders and laugh. Things like:
After Edgar killed himself, I went out to dinner with Melissa. I looked at the menu and said, "if daddy were here to see these prices, he'd kill himself all over again."
Qaddafi wanted to rent it [her condo] for that whole U.N. thing. People said it's blood money. I said, 'Oh, I can easily wash blood off dollar bills.' But they didn't like it. It was too close to a synagogue.
It's that combination of biting satire, self-deprecation and plain old funniness that allowed her to land these jokes in a way no one else could.
For a small subset of us, Joan will be remembered as the Aunt we wished we had. With all the humorlessness of aging, memories of Jewish persecution, the blatant racism and sexism of our recent past and the constant immigrant's pushing to succeed that filled the older adults in our lives, it was amazing to have Aunt Joan to make up laugh when we turned on the TV.
She was an amazing woman, and even more so, an amazing mensch.
She will be missed. We love you Joan.
It depends on the generation.
Anyone in their fifties and beyond will remember her as a pioneer in comedy, especially as a female comic. And rightfully so. Her appearances on late night television, specifically with the likes of Johnny Carson, made her a star. She was edgy. She didn't hold back any punches, even when it came to talking about celebrities and even herself.
Through the 60s and 70s, she was ever-present on talk shows. She released albums. She truly was a trail blazer in those decades, especially the 60s.
In the 80s, she found herself as a regular guest host for Johnny Carson, her mentor. She did stand up, had a best selling comedy album and book, did lots of television, etc. But the decade was rough for her as well. She signed with Fox in its early days to take on a late night show of her own. She was in the same time slot as Carson, and he apparently never forgave her for that, according to Rivers herself in multiple interviews. She was banned from the Tonight Show during the Carson years, as well as the Leno years.
The 90s basically introduced the Joan Rivers that most people remember today, and will likely remember going forward after her sad death at 81 this week.
After a successful daytime show, she transitioned to the E! Network where she hosted pre-Awards red carpet events for The Golden Globes and later the Academy Awards. She interviewed celebrities on the red carpet, ranted and raved about their fashion choices both in front of them and behind their backs. Personally, I despised those red carpet shows of hers. They defined and enhanced our sad culture of judgement, both good and bad (to the extreme for both), on celebrities. I cringed every time I heard a judgement from her, especially when it fell upon the likes of an actress. She contributed very much so to the current image hyper-judgement of actresses.
This, for most generations, is likely her legacy since she had been doing that for so many years. That and her plastic surgeries that she underwent throughout her career, sadly distorting her face.
That said, we can't take away the fact that she changed the comedy industry in those early years. I recently watched the documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night and was shocked to see how different she looked in those old clips. She was beautiful, despite likely already having undergone some surgeries. She was hilarious and funny to watch. And she was clearly one of Johnny Carson's best interviews throughout those early years. They had an amazing rapport between them.
No one will ever be able to take away from her legacy in that respect.
Beyond those early years, of which I was not alive during, my most positive legacy of her in my own lifetime will be something perhaps lesser known to most, unless you're a fellow Star Wars or Mel Brooks fan.
RIP Joan. You may have enraged, annoyed, insulted, and ridiculed many from all walks of life and for many different reasons, but I have a sneaking suspicion that was your plan throughout your career;) To some it was funny, groundbreaking, and welcome. To others it was tasteless, old, and boring. But to all, you were ever-present and one of a kind. You truly left your mark and likely paved the way for most women in comedy.
May the Schwartz be with you...
I produced and performed stand up comedy in Atlanta throughout the '90s and early '00s. It was on a local scale, nothing huge, but I always paid my talent. Maybe not much, but something. Always. For we who dared, Joan was a kind of sage. Wise-ass yeah, but wise too. I mean like wise for real. When I saw the scene on Louis where she tells him he was a fool for refusing to perform in a Trump venue because he couldn't diss The Donald I felt we were seeing this astute woman imparting precious wisdom. And she did this a lot. In print, in interviews, Joan Rivers told it like it was. Most importantly, she was funny.More questions on Quora: