Joan Rivers would not have shied away from making a punchline about her own death—she probably would have welcomed it. Humor was her whole life, and there was nothing she wouldn’t make a joke about it. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, she spoke a little about her husband’s suicide, and how it affected her:
… It’s a terrible, terrible, terrible thing to do to a family. It sends a bad message to the family, but it sends a lot of jokes if Mommy’s a comedian. My first joke was, “My husband killed himself and left a message that I have to visit him every day, so I had him cremated and sprinkled him in Neiman Marcus. Haven’t missed a day.” And that’s how I get through life, Terry.
Rivers was the definition of irrepressible—“a piece of work,” in her own words. “A brave and stubborn woman,” in Roger Ebert’s. She was a woman in comedy well before there were women in comedy—only the second regular female comedian in the New York City scene after Phyllis Diller. Rivers was doing stand-up in comedy clubs in Greenwich Village when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963. Rivers did more than her fair share of puncturing that mystique by refusing to be anything except what she was. The world then and the world now, most of the time, had no idea what to do with her.
Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinksy in 1933 in Brooklyn. She lived in the city for most of her life, working in fashion, dabbling in theater, and beginning to work in comedy clubs and guest-star on comedy shows originating from New York. But what rocketed her to success was her friendship with Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Show. When she first came on the show in 1965, he told her, “You’re going to be a big star.”
She went on to be a fixture on his show—the permanent guest star, welcome at all times. What’s especially charming is how often she was able to make Carson laugh over the course of two decades. She dedicated Enter Talking, her 1986 memoir, to her husband, Edgar, “who made the book happen,” and Carson, “who made it all happen.”
And true to form, because she did have such value for clothes and fashion, she saved the double-strand of pearls and the mod little ’60s top from 1965 to wear again in 1986.
Right after that last clip, things started to go downhill for Rivers. She and Carson had a falling-out when the new show she was offered was scheduled at 11 p.m., in direct competition with his; her achievement of being the first woman to helm a late-night talk show was marred by the loss of that friendship. (Rivers did not return as a guest on The Tonight Show until earlier this year, when Jimmy Fallon brought her on as one of his first.) And her husband committed suicide in 1987, leaving her a widow with a daughter, Melissa. After that, she drifted more toward fashion, celebrity gossip, and daytime television. She and Melissa started hosting E!’s red carpet show in the ’90s and never looked back. For many of a younger generation, Joan Rivers was nothing except the charmingly snarky red-carpet host who had clearly had gone through a lot of plastic surgery.
What’s interesting, and true to Joan, is that she embraced what others might call her trashiness as part and parcel of being a real and flawed human being. Nothing was safe from her barbed wit—and there was no situation or human emotion that she wouldn’t try to mine for humor, whether that was Israel’s conflict with Palestine, Liz Taylor’s addiction-related weight loss, or the 10-year captivity of Ariel Castro’s victims. She didn’t just deflate preconceived notions of femininity or motherhood—she deflated everything. There isn’t a person on the planet who could sit comfortably with every single thing Joan Rivers said, and that is the point. She took what was comfortable and unsaid about the world and said it, uncomfortably. Very uncomfortably.
In Slate last year, for her 80th birthday, Simon Doonan wrote a tribute to Rivers:
We all owe Joan a massive debt of gratitude. Without Joan, life in our celebrity-obsessed society would not be worth living. Joan is our guiding light. She has shown us all that, even though we are force-fed endless drivel about self-important A-listers from morning till night, there is no reason why we have to take that crap lying down. She gives us carte blanche to rip those freebie-crazed red-carpet deities to shreds at every opportunity. Without Joan and her complete lack of respect, we would all be stuck in a perpetual episode of Inside the Actors Studio.
He ends by saying, “Please don’t die anytime soon, Joan. We need you more than ever.”
Rivers died today after complications from throat surgery sent her into cardiac arrest and then a medically induced coma. Throughout her life, she lived by two basic tenets, which she articulated time and again. The first: Never turn down a gig. And the second: Never apologize for a joke. The day before she went to surgery, she released an episode of her podcast, In Bed With Joan. Ten days before her death, she taped an episode of Fashion Police for the Primetime Emmys and MTV’s Video Music Awards. Two months ago, while promoting her book on CNN, she took off her microphone and walked off the live feed, because the anchor, Frederika Whitfield, asked if Rivers’ jokes were too mean.
She lived the way she wanted to, right up to the end.
There was something very traditional and old-world about Joan—her emphasis on appearances, her long marriage, her humor that casually made fun of ethnic stereotypes. She thought it would be just fine if you got some work done so you could get a nice man. She didn’t understand why it was so wrong to say that thing in front of your friends. And, like your overly honest and sometimes embarrassing mom, she never stopped loving you. Because all that stripped-down candor was a sign of affection, and she loved the whole world. And because that love was so fearlessly given, it was hard not to love her right back.
And because it wouldn’t be right to not give her the last word, here’s my favorite moment with Joan Rivers: her guest stint on Louie, in “Sex With Joan Rivers,” when she makes us cry and laugh, right at the same time.