Joan Rivers died Thursday. This profane and prolific comedian was more than a trailblazer — she was consistently funny, with both self-deprecating and other-deprecating wit. At her best, no one could touch her. She held the spotlight for 50 years, telling us that the emperor had no clothes — or, at the very least, who the emperor was wearing.
Like Phyllis Diller, she came up in a time when being a female comic was far from easy. The New York Times wrote in 1965 that she was “an unusually bright girl … overcoming the handicap of a woman comic.”
Some found her humor off-putting. And if you took it at face value, it was: over-the-line, crude, belittling of celebrities for any failure to live up to absurd standards of beauty. But there was a verbal ingenuity that belied this criticism — as Sarah Blacher Cohen writes, “For many, Joan Rivers’ ad hominem insults are so ingenious and divorced from probability that they are benignly satirical. As with comic curses, the more extravagant they are, the less venom people assume they contain.”
Even if people objected, at times, to her humorous style, one of the most powerful things about Rivers was that she was there, a woman in the packed comedy club or on the TV set, duking it out with the best of them. She was as relentless as her wit.
Tasteless? Definitely. But, as Rivers said, “humor is tasteless. These are tasteless times. Truth is vicious, but why can’t we say it? The question is, who is going to tell the emperor he’s not wearing clothes? I think that’s my job. I am expressing what people think, and they love it.” (From Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture.) That was the essence of Rivers’s comedy — pointing out what the emperor was wearing.
And she left a trail of memorable one-liners behind her. Here are just a few:
- “My mother could make anybody feel guilty. She used to get letters of apology from people she didn’t even know.”
- “Want to know why women don’t blink during foreplay? Not enough time.”
- “I knew that I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.“
- “My body is a temple, and my temple needs redecorating.”
- (About herself) “Dress by Oscar de la Renta, body by Oscar Meyer.”
- (About herself) “A peeping tom looked in my window … and pulled down the shade.”
- “Boy George is all England needs — another queen who can’t dress.”
- (About Bo Derek) “She does not understand the concept of Roman numerals. She thought we just fought World War Eleven.”
- (About Elizabeth Taylor) “Is she fat? Her favorite food is seconds.”
- (About Mick Jagger) “He has child-bearing lips.”
- “People don’t believe I was a fat kid, but I really was. When I got off the carousel, the horse limped.”
- (About Yoko Ono) “If I found her floating in my pool, I’d punish my dog.”
- “All I heard when I was growing up was, ‘Why can’t you be more like your cousin Sheila? Why can’t you be more like your cousin Sheila?’ Sheila died at birth.”
- “There are double standards even today. A man can sleep around and nobody asks any questions; a woman, you make nineteen, twenty mistakes, and right away, you’re a tramp.”
- “Just like our flag, in this lifetime, this face has had 50 stars on it.”
Her album “What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?” hit No. 22 on the Billboard charts in the 1980s and was nominated for a Grammy. But she was a legend, full stop. There was nothing semi about it.