Editor, White Cover Magazine
At some point in the next couple days – honestly, probably already – somebody will show you that clip of Joan Rivers on Louie. The one where she sits the chronically depressed, sad, reflective, brilliant observer and comedian with the last name C.K. down and lays out their chosen careers to not just him, but to the audience and to an America that has always enjoyed stand-up but never quite understood why or how anyone would attempt to turn it into a career.
She talks about how it’s a the only thing she and he love to do and she cries a little – “you want a real job, honey, there a million things you can do,” she says – and she talks about being broke and bankrupt and she caps it all off with, “We make people happy. It’s a calling.” It’s all very Joan Rivers, and that’s why it’s now famous again. Chances are, most aspiring comedians bookmarked it when they first watched it in 2012 and they’ve just been waiting until now – or yesterday, when Rivers passed away at age 81 – to toss it on Twitter with a couple quote marks and a screengrab.
But the truth is, there are a million things you could say about Joan Rivers. Like the jobs she tells Louie about, there are a million quotes you could pull, an endless supply of clips and interviews you could embed and recycle (I’ve put one down below, in case you’re looking to waste a few minutes). That’s what made Joan Rivers so perfect, so lasting, so loved even while she sort of wasn’t. (And don’t tell me that it’s too soon to criticize her. The woman recently made a joke about Ariel Castro’s kidnapping victims. If you’re going to tell someone too soon when they rip Joan Rivers, you’re the punchline, sweetheart. I assume she’d end a sentence like that with sweetheart, so I did, too.)
Not only was she honest about herself – which clearly gave her the belief that she could be honest about others, often cruelly so – but she was appropriately revolving, from 1959 to 1990 to now. She didn’t just exist over generations but she crossed them and linked them. She came about in Greenwich Village in the 1960’s – when she was playing the Gaslamp with Woody Allen and Bob Dylan, when men still acted and dressed like Don Draper but grew their beards out just in case they ran into Jack Kerouac – but she’s admitted how happy she is to be past that. Happy about where her career took her and still nostalgic about where she came from, Rivers moved forward whenever she could without forgetting how long it took to first start the car. She was never afraid to talk about the worst moments of her life, the greatest moments of her life, and how much she loved everyone along the way. She talks about her grandson and her daughter like a real person should, not putting Johnny Carson or any other supernovas on a pedestal above anyone else – Don Rickles has that same touch, and Bill Cosby made a career out of making fun of his family.
Like Aaron Rodgers, Joan Rivers was happy to graduate to the NFL, as long as you know she came from Butte Community College, too.
I found a couple favourites last night, while I was trying to take the public’s temperature on her passing.
First, there’s the interview she gave with The Daily Beast, published only yesterday posthumously.
“I had the gun in my lap, and the dog sat on the gun,” she said, admitting that she considered suicide after her husband, Edgar, killed himself in 1987. “I lecture on suicide because things turn around. I tell people this is a horrible, awful dark moment, but it will change and you must know it’s going to change and you push forward. I look back and think, ‘Life is great, life goes on. It changes.'”
But then she says something truly uncomfortable, which is a great thing.
“We were all down in the rubble, and he didn’t want to dig himself out,” she says. “I understand it, and feel terribly sorry for him, but I wonder if I’d be sitting here today talking to you if he had not killed himself, if we wouldn’t have ended up just a very bitter couple in a house on the hill somewhere.
“He would have said, ‘That’s it, they can all go to hell, and we’ll just pull ourselves in.’ After he died, because there was nothing, I had to strike out again. A friend of mine at his funeral said, ‘He’s freed you.’ I thought that was very interesting. And in a way he did, ’cause I had to really start again, thank god.”
And so there you have it: Joan Rivers admitting that her husband committing suicide was – in a way – the best thing for her. That’s an odd conclusion for her to draw, and it’s awkward for me to write – especially while I’m saying that I admire her for it, which I have no right to say – but there are far too many people who are afraid to talk about anything they worry another won’t appreciate, and Rivers was never afraid to be the one who caught tomatoes with her face.
She goes on, in another interview with The Hollywood Reporter, to talk vividly about her feud with Johnny Carson. The two were, at one time, a formidable late night duo, but Carson’s response to her departure from The Tonight Show was cruel and, let’s be honest, childish. He was in show business, after all. And when Rivers left to host her own show, Carson cut her loose. He didn’t just break off his friendship with her, but he turned her into an outcast – perhaps not on purpose, but he had to know what his scythe would do to her. Carson had the ability to destroy someone else’s career just by giving them the cold shoulder, because everyone else could see it and everyone else would then be afraid to embrace his rejects. He wasn’t as bad as Frank Sinatra in that way – Frank would get offended by little flicks and tormented his peers just for the fun of it, when he felt entitled to it – but to say Rivers was Carson’s version of Peter Lawford isn’t such a stretch.
“The first person I called was Johnny, and he hung up on me – and never, ever spoke to me again. And then denied that I called him. I couldn’t figure it out. I would see him in a restaurant and go over and say hello. He wouldn’t talk to me.
“I kept saying, ‘I don’t understand, why is he mad?’ He was not angry at anybody else. I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him. I know this sounds very warped. But I don’t understand otherwise what was going on. For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But I think it was a question of, ‘I found you, and you’re my property.’ He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him.
“Looking back, and I never like to say it, the Carson breakup hurt me a lot, without realizing it. Even now, with our reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? or Fashion Police, when I say, ‘No, this is wrong,’ people say: ‘See? She is a bitch. She is a c—.’ If I were a man, they’d say: ‘So brilliant. He’s tough, but he’s right.’ Nobody ever says to me, ‘You’re right.'”
Truth is, Rivers is actually wrong in a way. Maybe her peers never told her she was brilliant – like they told Carson, or like they still tell Lorne Michaels, who she also mentions in that article – but her fans supported her all the time, often rallying behind her when she’d say something over the line or too soon. They do the same thing with Jon Stewart whenever he dips a toe into the political arena and then recoils under the “I’m a comedian – It’s what I do” defence. And it’s a just defence, but Rivers had to use it more than most, for sure.
It should be noted, Rivers’s death comes less than a month after Robin Williams’s, another artist who shattered the mould but did it a decade later, not in the coffeehouses among New York’s beatniks but on the West Coast in the Comedy Store and on Sunset Boulevard.
She’ll be remembered as a pioneer for not only female entertainers but for comedians in general. And she was still crushing it in 2014, a simultaneous throwback and shape-shifter who took what first made her great and just kept growing.
She’ll be missed. Well, duh.
VIDEO: Joan Rivers returns to The Tonight Show