Joan Rivers died today after suffering from cardiac arrest during throat surgery last week. Her death came at a time in her life when she was still working at a furious pace, personifying the term “workaholic.” Aside from being a red carpet regular, she hosted Fashion Police and toured extensively, adhering to a punishing schedule.
Calling Joan Rivers “controversial” has become cliched. Her style of comedy was largely influenced by contemporaries like Don Rickles and Lenny Bruce. She took on topics that many found taboo: abortion, homosexuality, female sexuality, celebrity, racism, the Holocaust. Her take on these issues were often presented in characteristically-barbed and brutal humor. To many, her style was uproarious and hilarious, and to others she was offensive.
Throughout her career, especially towards the end of her life, she regularly bristled at the moniker of “legend” or “icon” rightfully scornful of these titles because they implied that she was stepping aside for the younger generation of comediennes. She maintained that she was still opening doors and wanted to maintain her position on top of the comedic totem pole.
As social critique, her comedy often asked a lot of her audiences – she demanded a certain kind of tolerance from her listeners – an endurance to hearing jokes about things that were often talked about in whispered secret. Her goal was to drag these topics out of the closet and to discuss them openly. Abortion is still a much-feared topic on TV today, but Rivers took on the topic in the 1970s on prime time variety shows.
During the 1980s her style of comedy shifted as her star ascended when she landed her own short-lived late night talk show. She started to skewer fellow celebrities – Elizabeth Taylor was a favorite target. Rivers realized that often fans loved their stars when they were human, and saw that despite Taylor’s personal troubles, she was just as beloved in the 1980s as she was during her film star heyday. She used her wit savagely and unsparingly. She also created a new kind of celebrity: the red carpet fashion critic. Armed with a microphone, she charged at movie stars making their way to an awards ceremony, and bombarded them with questions about their fashion. She became popular because she often ripped apart the movie stars’ fashion choices, using her sharp tongue and lightening-fast mind.
By the end of her life, she created a legendary career. But despite her successes, she still was unfulfilled in one area: her acting. As a comedienne, a stand-up, her success was unequivocal. But as a thespian, her career was spotty, and this was something that bothered her throughout her career. In her documentary, Piece of Work, she made references to her stalled acting career, wishing that she could’ve landed the one juicy role that would’ve elevated her acting career. Despite her Tony nomination for Sally Marr…and Her Escorts and warm notices for her work in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, her work on the stage has been somewhat frustrating. Possibly due to her oversized public persona as well as her ubiquitous presence on television, audiences were unwilling to watch Joan Rivers be anybody else but Joan Rivers.
But as Joan Rivers, the comedienne was a study in triumph and talent, but also hard work and survival. Suffering from her husband’s suicide, a public feud with Johnny Carson, and career setbacks, she transcended these obstacles by an old fashioned work ethic, outworking the competition and climbing her way to the top of the heap by sheer grit. As a comedienne, her material started to lose some of its ingenuity later on in her career. Often her comments were meant to be probing and provocative, but instead were often mean and insulting. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, Rivers’ humor was often reduced to soundbites, losing context and intent, and it ended up leaving a bitter taste in fans’ mouths. But her sincere fans kept with her, ensuring that her concerts were sold out and that her books always landed in the best seller lists.
If there’s anything to learn about the example of Joan Rivers is that our society needs to rethink out we look at old age. Too many times if someone is over the age of 60, we’re happy to marginalize the individual, assuming he/she is too old to do anything. If anything, Rivers proved that even at 80, there are still goals and achievements to be met. Rivers was rarely complacent and it was clear that she wasn’t finished.