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Joan Rivers’s muddled legacy

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No one seems to be talking about the same Joan Rivers. The 81-year-old comedienne, whose daughter Melissa announced her death yesterday afternoon, was as polarizing as she was pioneering. Depending on whose Twitter feed or essays you read, you may have seen unqualified praise or grudging condolence. You may have read defenses of her “ballsy,” “no-holds-barred” humor, or found yourself staring at her very recent comments to TMZ about Palestinian civilian casualties and her off-color, offensive quips about the president and First Lady.

This shouldn’t be surprising. When we die, there will always be those who choose to remember us at our worst and they are usually the people we’ve hurt. But it is surprising, at least to me, as the mixed response to River’s passing raises questions about how we mourn comedians who are as well known for their “meanness” and mocking of others as they are are for bringing laughter to the masses. How do we who are alive and remain reconcile the deaths of those who lived “unapologetically?”

It’s impossible to pay tribute to Rivers without recalling her cruelest bits — and maybe that’s the way she would’ve wanted it. There’s plenty of evidence, however, to the contrary. In interview after interview throughout Rivers’ career, her offstage moments are rendered as vulnerable, deprecating, anxious and insecure. She wanted to be loved by the public, wanted her work to be loved, and she was willing to alter herself unendingly to make that happen. It’s too soon to tell how much of a miscalculation that choice may have been.

While reflecting on Twitter about Rivers’ death, Lena Dunham fondly recalled a joke Rivers once made about Dunham’s tattoos, but it’s difficult to read the joke without noting that its punchline is predicated on tasteless insults about Michael J. Fox’s and Stevie Wonder’s disabilities. It’s difficult not to remember all the jokes Rivers told at the expense of the disabled.

It’s true that, for comedians, nothing is off-limits. We can all think of a moment when we’ve cringed as a comic reached for a joke at the expense of others’ ailments or traumas. But in the latter part of her career, Rivers seemed to do far more of that sort of work than ever before — and it didn’t end with celebrities.

In April of this year, Rivers raised eyebrows by tastelessly “poking fun” at the survivors of ten years of sex abuse and captivity in Cleveland. When she was later taken to task, she doubled down. Writer Emily Yahr opined that it was useless to expect an apology from Rivers:

Rivers herself has been through a particular hell and back as she’s clawed her way up the Hollywood ladder, and many years ago reached the point in her career at which she can say basically anything she wants. Don’t like it? Find it offensive? She doesn’t care…. She’s her own harshest critic, and has nothing to lose.

Fellow comedian Anthony Jeselnik echoed this sentiment in a tweet yesterday that read, “Joan Rivers once told me she would die before she’d ever apologize for a joke. I’m glad she made it.”

Joan Rivers’s legacy is a muddled drink. Celebrities can choose to lead unapologetic lives. But how we choose to mourn them hinges on whether the balance of our memories are more admirable or animous. In other words: if they were unapologetic in their lack of regard for what we might find hurtful, we, in responding to their deaths, can be, too.

I tend toward the sentimental, so in reading obituaries and tributes, I’ve loved learning about Rivers’ early years and the difficult father who once disowned her and the grandson she adored. I’ve relished reading up on her post-marital lovers and spotting a tweet from Connecticut College that included her class picture. I felt for her upon reflecting on her rift with Johnny Carson and her second husband’s high-profile suicide. Though it’s clear that late in her career, she grasped at defenseless, unfamous subjects, mocking them to stoke the fire of her relevance, she was not unilaterally hateful. Though I know that she often made the marginalized her material — including but not limited to battered women, the disabled, transgender people, and casualties of war and genocide — she was also mentor to countless other women comics (many of whom seem to share her “unapologetic,” “ballsy” approach to humor) and an advocate for HIV research and suicide prevention.

It’s hard to believe we’re all writing about and reflecting upon the same woman, but we are. There’s nothing particularly profound about it. We all exist in the gray.

We are allowed to discuss what was iconic or underrated about Joan Rivers while also acknowledging that her work and her opinions could be callous, ill-timed, or indefensible. We shouldn’t soft-pedal the complexity of Rivers’ public profile. It minimizes her impact, for better or worse, and it issues no challenge to the “unapologetic” comic. In a field all about upping your game and refining your voice, the best way to honor Joan Rivers’ legacy, the best way to measure her lasting contributions to comedy, is to lay bare the riskiest choices she made in service of getting a laugh and to ask ourselves, “Were they worth it?”