An Appreciation: Joan Rivers

Brilliant. Tasteless. Fearless. Trailblazer. Unapologetic. Genius.

We at Screaming Back at the Screen love to laugh. Here at our headquarters, we try to do it as loudly and as often as possible. And our loudest, most obnoxious and annoying laughs are always prompted by our favorite kind of comedy: snarky, sarcastic, tasteless, politically incorrect and delivered with great timing and a huge punch.

Credit: AP

Joan Rivers at an Emmys Award ceremony. Credit: AP

But we were not laughing this past Thursday when we heard of the death of one of our all-time faves, Joan Rivers.  She was a genius of comedy and the model of reinvention when all the chips are down. Now in death, she is being celebrated for her candor, her fearlessness and her crazy work ethic.

“I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”

This Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard College earned our HUGE fan-dom because she was smart and hysterically FUNNY. She was a master (mistress?) of snark that kept our sides splitting. But we admired her for so much more: she was the first woman we could relate to doing this work on television and later, after all seemed lost, she reinvented herself and came back bigger than ever.

“You go on stage, and you’ve got to be in command. You have to put down drunks and control the conversation, and that’s very masculine. When I think back to the places I’ve played, I’m amazed I didn’t turn out to be Dora Dyke.”

Credit: AP

Circa 1965. Credit: AP

To say that she was a trailblazer for women in comedy and show business in general is truly an understatement. Sure, there were a few women doing comedy on shows like The Mike Douglas Show, Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin and the other talk and variety shows of our youth but Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields and their housewife humor just didn’t do it for us. Phyllis came close when she cracked on her husband, Fang, but she just didn’t have that cutting comedy shank that we came to know and love from Joan Rivers. And because of Joan then, we have funny women like Kathy Griffin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman now.

In our estimation, the great Roseanne Barr is now the new comedy doyenne. In true Joan Rivers style, Roseanne doesn’t censor herself, never apologizes for her comedy and is a believer in plastic surgery. (SBATS sidenote: We once saw Roseanne in a comedy club and after telling her that we often get in trouble for expressing our thoughts at work, she told us that we needed a new job! How true…)

“I’ve learned to have absolutely no regrets about any jokes I’ve ever done.”

One of Joan Rivers’ greatest gifts was her fearlessness on stage. No topic was off-limits. She insulted everyone from herself (“My vagina is like Newark. Men know it’s there, but they don’t want to visit.”), her parents (“My earliest childhood memory was watching my parents loosen the wheels on my stroller.”), her husband (“My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love, and I took the bag off my head.”) to the biggest celebrities in the world (“Elizabeth Taylor is so fat when she stands in front of her microwave, she screams “hurry.”). This was new territory because in using them as targets, it made her audience see that celebrities are just like the rest of us: humans whose shit stinks just like everyone else’s. Chris Rock knows this and said: “Just watch me on any awards show telling jokes about celebrities. Who started that shit? Joan Rivers!”

“We don’t apologize for a joke. We are comics. We are here to make you laugh. If you don’t get it, then don’t watch us.”

In this era of apologies by celebrities for speaking their authentic thoughts and offending someone in the process, Joan never did. Recalling her on his show, David Letterman said: ”She stood behind her jokes. To my knowledge, would say these things and never apologize. Because she always felt, hey, I’m a comedian, these are jokes, there are no victimless jokes. And she was harder on herself… She would tell these god-awful jokes about herself. …Grow up, these are just jokes, ladies and gentlemen.”

“He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him.”

Credit: NY Daily News

Joan and Johnny Carson. Credit: NY Daily News

Her history with Tonight Show star Johnny Carson is show business legend. It’s a tale told again and again. He gave her his blessing and eventually made her the first permanent guest host of his show. But it when it came time to step out from behind him, he exiled  her from his empire for taking a job that would force him to stop phoning it in as he had been doing for a while. In the guest host spot, Joan was must-see TV and was talked about the next day around watercoolers everywhere among late night fans. Meanwhile, no one was talking about Johnny and his old-codger Hollywood friends after they had been on to plug their latest projects.

She would not return to the Tonight Show until she was invited by Jimmy Fallon earlier this year.

Her Fox show wasn’t a great show and was eventually canceled but her jokes were always funny and looking back on it now, her crazy ‘80s outfits and her huge hair were even funnier.

Sadly, the Fox show was a major downward turning point in her life. Her husband, Edgar, who, in addition to being her manager, executive producer of her show and the butt of so many of her best lines, killed himself months after its demise.

“My whole career has been one rejection after another and then going back and back and pushing against everything and everybody. Getting ahead by small, ugly steps.”

SBATS was a HUGE fan of Joan’s reinvention of herself and finds it inspiring now. Realizing that she had to get out and earn, she accepted an offer from a television shopping network to sell her own line of jewelry and success followed. Eventually things came together again and one of her triumphs was winning a Daytime Emmy for her daytime talk show that ran from 1989 to 1993.

We watched her documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,  a few months ago and was amazed at Joan’s work ethic. She was a prolific writer over the years and authored many best-selling books. But before the books, there were the jokes and she showed off the card catalog that contained jokes from throughout her career that were the foundation of every appearance. She showed her calendar book and seemed almost panicked if there was an empty date that didn’t have an appearance of some kind already penciled in whether it was a comedy show, television appearance or something that PAID.

“At my funeral… I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents.”

While the tributes roll in, Joan’s over-the-top Hollywood sendoff extravaganza with a red carpet and stars walking it is being planned. She had a remarkable life even though some of it was tragic. But as she said in her final interview on The Daily Beast, “If life is 100 percent, I’ve got 90.” Apparently, math wasn’t her strong suit: her life was way more than that. So here’s to Joan Rivers and that Harry Winston toe tag that she so desired.


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