When I was growing up, if Joan Rivers was guesting on “The Tonight Show” or sitting in for the legendary Johnny Carson I was there. She was so funny. Her incessant “Can we talk?!” as she prattled on about her husband and other things made teenage me think she was the funniest person ever. Then I saw her perform live.
One summer night in mid-1980s Atlantic City, Rivers made me understand the difference between what you see on television and what happens in real life. Remember how the South Park kids reacted during the opening number of “Asses of Fire”? That was me. The Rivers who showed up on late-night NBC was June Cleaver compared to the raunchy, curse-spewing comedienne I was in the audience to see. And it was awesome!
From that moment on, I avidly followed her career, from the highs of being touted as the next Carson to the lows of losing her beloved husband Edgar Rosenberg to suicide in 1987. Through it all, Rivers fought to stay in our face. She wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes, she could be a little too in our face. Her antics and jokes were prone to going over the line. “Too soon?” is a phrase tailor-made for any number of her jokes. “There’s always an adjective before my name and it’s never a nice adjective,” Rivers says to the camera in the superb 2010 documentary about her life. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
In “Joan Rivers: Piece of Work,” you see the then-75-year-old comedic powerhouse at her most human. From the opening scene, when you see a tight close-up of her bare face as a make-up artist gets to work on that plastic surgeon’s playground, to the very end, Rivers bares her fears, dreams, failures, aspirations, everything for all to see without apology. “I’ll show you fear,” she says as she runs her fingers across an empty calendar. “That’s fear.”
The scene that stuck with me was when she approached a wall of filing card cabinets. “These are all my jokes over the last 30 years,” she tells the camera. They are typewritten on index cards and filed according to topic. No doubt, I admired her obsessive organization. But what spoke to me was how hard she worked her entire life to be where she was and who she is. “Joan will turn nothing down,” said her assistant. Thanks to the reality television shows, the red carpet specials, the fashion critiques, the books, the gigs hither and yon and the occasional cranky television interview, we know that to be true.
According to the New York Daily News, Rivers played a Times Square theater on Aug. 27, the night before the medical procedure on her throat that would lead us to this sad moment. Her heart stopped. She went into cardiac arrest. She was placed in a medically induced coma. On Sept. 3, her daughter Melissa announced that her mother had been taken out of intensive care and moved to a private hospital room. My heart sunk. That’s never a good sign. The 81-year-old raw, rude and uproarious queen of comedy died at 1:17 p.m. on Thursday.
“Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things,” Rivers said as she out heckled a heckler in the documentary as only she could. I can’t wait to hear the jokes that celebrate her and what she accomplished.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj