In her long and relentless comedy career, Joan Rivers, who died Thursday at 81, worked plenty hard enough to become famous many times over, from one era to the next, riding out waves of occasional public disapproval and the sometimes fickle regard of her peers. She started her career telling hilariously honest miserable-housewife jokes on black-and-white TV. In the end, she was making fun of her own sagging form and Kim Kardashian’s infant daughter.
And as she aged, the jokes got dirtier and more shocking. That’s partly because society itself, particularly the celebrity culture Rivers both reviled and reveled in, got dirtier and more shocking. In the end, what was left to admire was her determination to “go there” in a time when others are increasingly deferential to fame and status.
She said Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s “Girls,” is fat. You’re not supposed to say that. She made jokes about those poor missing women who were held captive in a house in Cleveland. You shouldn’t do that, either. She made a (c’mon, perfectly harmless!) Holocaust joke out of a dress Heidi Klum wore to an Oscar party.
You wanted Joan Rivers to apologize for any of that? Don’t hold your breath. (She’d be the first to crack a stopped-breathing joke, if she were here.)
Oh, Jooooannn, people were always saying — on her fashion critique show, on her reality show, during her guest appearances on other people’s shows or from the back of the audience during her constant schedule of stand-up comedy shows. OMG, Joan. She had performed onstage the night before she went to a Manhattan doctor’s office last week for a throat procedure, during which she reportedly suffered cardiac arrest and never recovered. At that last show, there had to be at least one person in the audience who thought: I can’t believe she just said that.
She mouthed off long enough to arrive at one final and strange place in our common culture, in which people are constantly apologizing for what others deem to be inappropriate quips, jokes, tweets, updates, memes, Instagram captions, leaked e-mails — all the many ways we find to fail at our attempts at her kind of humor.
Sometimes the people doing the apologizing are our best comedians, the very people we expect to push the envelope as far as it can go. The world seems always to pounce on the next person who deigns to make light or fun of a subject someone’s not ready to laugh about.
Her jokes gave the impression of being reflexive and uncontrolled, delivered by a mouth decoupled from its brain; in fact, she was a precise writer who could work fast. Rivers, who seemed indifferent to the capricious concept of “too soon,” always said whatever was on her mind, and, as a 2010 documentary film about her (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”) revealed, she kept a vast card catalogue of her sharpest jabs, arranged by subject. It was as if she had assembled a handmade database of 140-character tweets — all hers — over the decades.
Her sense of humor and her belief only in being funny made her part of a dying tribe, the last remaining people who honestly believe that if you can’t take a joke, you are welcome to go (bleep) yourself. Her descendants include not only the Kathy Griffins and Sarah Silvermans of the comedy world, but also the only person you really want to talk to at a party, the one with the unhinged mouth.
Observing this fact is not the same as issuing a harangue against political correctness and the word police. Saying goodbye to Joan Rivers means that we have to address a whole minefield of fine lines that zigzag across the fraught territories of free speech and showbiz — places that Rivers boldly tromped through over and over. It only works if you have a knack for it. What we’re learning in this tell-all, tweet-all age is that most of us don’t have her knack for it.
Rivers had no worries about damaging the brand, a fear that grips us all now. Say or tweet the wrong thing and your career (as a performer, as an author, as a politician, as a weather forecaster, as an athlete, or, more dire, as an anybody) is potentially toast, unless you cough up precisely the right kind of apology.
In charting the ups and downs of both her career and personal life, Rivers continually reminded her fans that there was no value in walking back a good joke. She argued with her hecklers. She stood by her words. What could happen to her that hadn’t happened already? She was banished from her warm seat at Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” for having the audacity to act in her own self interest and accept another network’s offer to host a late-night talk show in 1986. Her signature line — “Can we talk?” — was answered from many corners with a Does she ever shut up? After her talk show was canceled, her husband and business partner killed himself.
Rather than drift away, she spent the better part of a decade associated with the red carpet mania at awards shows — perhaps the vilest and smarmiest place American culture has ever constructed — where she became famous all over again for brashly piercing egos and cracking jokes about celebrity fashion choices in real time. She got so good at it that “Saturday Night Live” was compelled to portray her in 1999 as a fanged demon who feeds off the blood of starlets and then sprouts wings and flies away.
She was ahead of her time there, too. Now, when it comes to red carpets, many viewers at home do as Rivers taught them, tweeting out whatever funny and occasionally cruel remark pops into their heads. On her weekly E! show “Fashion Police,” Rivers wisely surrounded herself with a panel of “experts” to both affirm her remarks and deflect them. Giuliana Rancic, with eyes as a large as a child’s in a thrift-store painting, would instinctively transmit a look of apologetic disdain to all of Hollywood when Rivers went too far with a joke, while, to Rivers’s immediate left, stylist George Kotsiopoulos would shriek with laughter at everything she said, no matter how ribald or inappropriate. This let the viewer have it both ways.
Somehow, “Can we talk?” became “Excuse me, may I please talk?” We are, as she was, in search of a balance in mastering that dark art of having something to say about everything: How mean is too mean? When does a catty remark involve too much claw? You never really know until you put it out there; your audience — whether on live TV or at the dining room table — will either laugh or they won’t, and sometimes they’ll hiss.
Late in life, Joan Rivers seemed to want us to know something very important about all this, something we’re forgetting more and more: Everything blows over. You think it, you say it and, no matter what, you move on.