Joan Rivers: Vicious, Trailblazing, And Ballsy As Hell

CREDIT: Peter Kramer/AP

Joan Rivers died today at the age of 81. If she could, she’d probably make a joke right now. She had a history of meeting death with laughter; for a while in the ’90s, she ran a “grief seminar,” helping others cope, in part, by making jokes about her husband’s suicide. “The first year after Edgar killed himself, I was so angry that if he had come home, I probably would have killed him.” There are these places most comedians, even the gutsy ones, are usually afraid to go. (Or, depending on your sensibility, are too decent to go.) But Rivers just went for it.

Taboo subjects that most humorists were wary to touch were Rivers’s specialty. She busted through barriers for women in comedy and was one of the first comedians to crack abortion jokes. In an interview with NPR, she talked about why it was so important for her to do so:

“I just think you open up the doors and you laugh at everything. I was the first one to discuss abortion, and it was very rough. … And I couldn’t even say the word abortion — I had to say, ‘She had 14 appendectomies.’ … Everyone went to Cuba to get appendectomies. Or went to Puerto Rico to get appendectomies. That was a big thing. … And by making jokes about it, you brought it into a position where you could look at it and deal with it. It was no longer something that you couldn’t discuss and had to whisper about. When you whisper about something, it’s too big and you can’t get it under control and take control of it.”

She could be vicious and snarky and ballsy as hell, and she made fun of herself just as much as she made fun of other people. (Sample self-dig: “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”) And she never shied away from point-blank addressing the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated and (still!) sexist profession.

In writing about her now-famous falling out with Johnny Carson in The Hollywood Reporter, she opened with this clinical analysis: “When I started out, a pretty girl did not go into comedy.” Her story went on to say that while she was coming up at the same time as Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and George Carlin, she “never was one of the guys, I was never asked to go hang out; I never thought about it until later.” She was the last of the pack “to break through, or to be allowed to break through,” she wrote. “Looking back, I think it was because I was a woman. Because in those days, they would come down to the Village and look at you for Johnny Carson. I was the very last one of the group they put on the Carson show.”

But being an outsider gave her the perspective to make these jokes nobody else could make. Listen to this bit, from 1967, on men, women, and double-standards in dating and marriage (much thanks to Cosmopolitan writer Anna Breslaw, who flagged the video on Twitter). For better or worse, it’s aged pretty well:

Lately, though, Rivers didn’t want to hear about hard it is for women in show business. Not anymore. In an L.A. Times piece from earlier this year, she said, “Don’t talk to me about women’s lib. Stop it. We’ve won. They won’t hire a woman comedy writer? Let me tell you something, if you’re funny, they’d hire Hitler. If my dog Teegan came in with six jokes he would be writing for Jimmy Fallon.”

Her humor wasn’t for everyone. Holocaust jokes aren’t your thing? Too bad: Rivers wasn’t sorry for the one she made during Fashion Police about Heidi Klum’s Oscars attire. Rivers, who was Jewish, was unapologetic, telling CNN, “It’s a joke, number one. Number two, it is about the Holocaust. This is how I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humor.” Her red carpet reporting tactics often involved body-shaming women, a handful of whom, including Jennifer Lawrence, were critical of Rivers’s values. Rivers was not for everyone.

Her detailed instructions for a memorial service are below:

Guess all that’s left to do is see if her requests are fulfilled.