I liked Joan Rivers but I did not like Joan Rivers.
The difference is between who Rivers was and what she became. One was a funny, comedic pioneer of almost iconic proportions. The other was a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed hag who spewed bigotry and venom and there’s nothing funny about that.
Is it too soon to be candid about Rivers? De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that? I don’t think so. Rivers rarely bit her tongue and I don’t either. Death doesn’t suddenly make somebody a saint. Over the last decade or so something inside Joan Rivers curdled and her humor turned into a sharp weapon that skewered her targets without restraint or mercy.
Rivers because she’s had personal ordeals in the past. EVERYBODY has had personal ordeals in the past, present and in the future. That’s not a reason to be as pitiless and cruel as Rivers was time and again.
The best comedians are often caustic, acidic and downright nasty in their humor. Rivers seemed to take gleeful pride in saying horrible things at exactly the worst time. She made it work for her, but where was the gag? Or maybe it was there was no gag and that was the best gag of them all.
Where did Rivers go wrong? Molly Ivins, the late political observer and satirist explained a possible reason, “There are two kinds of humor. One kind that makes us chuckle about our foibles and our shared humanity — like what Garrison Keillor does. The other kind holds people up to public contempt and ridicule — that’s what I do. Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.”
Rivers never played by that rule. She reveled in being vulgar and the only rules she played by were her own. Anyone was fair game and no matter how vulgar it was she would steadfastly refuse to apologize and why would she? It’s not as though she was sorry for anything she said.
When the rest of us were aghast at the plight of the women held hostage by Ariel Castro for a decade, Rivers said, “They got to live rent free for more than a decade”. When Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus said they were hurt by Rivers joking about their ordeal, she sneered, “One of them has a book deal. Neither are in a psych ward. They’re ok. I bet you within three years one of them will be on Dancing with the Stars.”
Or what about this one about Whitney Houston: ‘I hate Houston. It’s crawling with bugs. Oh, wait, that’s Whitney Houston; I’m sorry, my bad. (Can I just mention that Whitney looked fabulous at the Grammys? She was in mahogany from head to toe.)’
That’s humor? That’s a joke? That’s supposed to be funny?
Throwing shade at pop stars, airhead actresses and pompous politicians kept Rivers relevant even when she seemed to be the only one in on the gag. She’d probably be pretty amused at all the accolades being showered on her, but then it’s a natural human reaction to maximize the good of the departed and minimize the bad.
That’s not how Rivers lived her life. That’s not how I note her death.
Rivers was a comedy legend and that much no one can ever take from her. I can’t imagine she would let anyone try either. She was a trailblazer. She opened doors. She kicked open doors for women in comedy. It’s there’s ever a Comedy Hall of Fame she’ll have a big-ass statue and good for her.
But she wasn’t a nice person and if it makes me a bad person to say it that’s better than being a hypocritical one.
Joan would have understood.