Unless you’ve been floating in a sensory deprivation tank for the past week, you’ve heard that comedian, celebrity, and fashionista Joan Rivers passed away. She died on Thursday at the age of 81. She would probably have loved the frenzy of the media falling over itself to eulogize her.
She was certainly one of a kind. She paved the way for generations of comedians, especially women comedians, that followed and she continued to do so into her eighties. We was a stand-up comic. a talk show host, a writer, a director, a producer, and defined the larger-than-life world of reality television better than anyone. Of course, that is not necessarily a compliment. No one was better at surfing the tide of celebrity-driven popular culture than Joan Rivers.
I can’t remember a time when I was unaware of her but I was never really a fan until a few years ago when I saw her perform live. It would never have entered my mind to buy tickets to see Joan Rivers but a group of friends were going. I went more for the evening with friends than to see Rivers but ended up loving both.
Joan Rivers holds a unique position in my life. She’s the only entertainer that both my mother and I saw perform live. We did not see her together. Actually we didn’t even see her in the same century.
In the early 1970’s Rivers was already well-known from her appearances on variety and talk shows. My mother and some of the “girls from the office” went to see her in Milwaukee at the Pfister Hotel. My mother said she was much more vulgar in person than she was on television. Shannon was no prude but ‘vulgar’ was never a compliment.
Rivers’ comedy was more mean-spirited than I’m comfortable with. When I’d stumbled across her while channel surfing, I would usually laugh. But I usually felt a little guilty about it too. I remember in the years when Elizabeth Taylor was married to Senator John Warner and battling her weight, Rivers was merciless. Joan said that Senator Warner liked to take Taylor to McDonald’s just to see the ‘number served’ display spin but the only way he could get Taylor back out through the golden arches was to “butter her thighs and hold a Twinkie in front of her.” I confess I still think that is a funny image. I also think it was mean and hurtful.
Rivers had always had a strong gay following but in recent years became an icon to many of nature’s bachelors. The gays loved Joan and the feeling seemed to be mutual. But what impressed me most the night I saw her was not the homo-friendly content. I was amazed by how hard she worked. The NPR program Fresh Air broadcast excerpts from past interviews with Rivers on their Friday program. She talked about how important it was to her that people who spent the money to buy a ticket have a good time. She wanted every one of them to leave feeling like they’d seen a great show. That is the kind of thing any performer might say in an interview but, after seeing her perform live, I believe she was sincere.
She was always controversial. Some people attending the concert the night we were there had clearly only come because they’d purchased season tickets at the venue. They were quickly offended, especially by the gay-themed material, and some walked out. Rivers neither batted an eye nor missed a beat. As they were walking up the aisle she announced from the stage that if there were any gays or lesbians in the “cheap seats” they were welcome to move up because some seats had just become available in the first few rows.She got a huge hand.
Love her or hate her, Rivers was a role model for how to be successful later in life. Many criticized her plastic surgery as an example of what is wrong with the way society sees aging, especially for women. She didn’t disagree but said it was not her job to change society. She felt better looking younger and thinner. She was also a working entertainer and knew some people came out to see her into her 70’s and 80’s because they wanted to see how she looked. To those who bemoaned her contribution to the unrealistic standards set for women she had one response. “Go ask Jane Pauley what it felt like to be fired from the Today Show when she turned 40. I’m still working.”
She also displayed a bravado later in life that I admire. She said the best thing about aging was it made one fearless. “What are they going to do? Fire me? I’ve been fired. Drive me into bankruptcy? I’ve been bankrupt. There is nothing that anyone can do to me that I haven’t already survived”
She had a simple philosophy for maintaining a successful career. “Go through any door that opens. You never know which one might lead to something good.” One of her first jobs in show business was writing jokes for Topo Gigio, the mouse puppet on the Ed Sullivan Show. I doubt she expected that six decades later she’d be doing slash & burn fashion commentary on red carpets.
She was never my favorite entertainment personality but I’ll miss her. I hope her next chapter is as interesting as her last.