Joan Rivers and vicious humor

I don’t think I ever saw the late Joan Rivers actually perform her standup comedy routine except for very short bits but her presence could be felt everywhere in the media and so I knew about her indirectly. I knew that she was a pioneer, entering the field of standup comedy when it was almost exclusively a male field and that she had to fight her way to make it.

Helen Redmond says that Rivers had to put up with a lot to achieve her success, especially early in her long career.

Throughout her career, Rivers had to contend with sexism. The world of comedy was a cigar smoking, good old boys club and women had to fight to get in. Her tenacity was legendary. In the early part of Rivers’s career she cracked jokes that railed against sexist double standards in American society. But later these jokes all but disappeared from her routines.

It is perhaps no surprise that she had a sharp tongue and was legendary for never apologizing for the things she said, however hurtful her comments. But that as time went by, Rivers’s comedy went in a decidedly unpleasant direction.

There’s no doubt that older women in show business face enormous pressure to look forever 21. And even younger comics like Kathy Griffin have felt compelled to go under the knife to stay in the game. But the reason Rivers career stalled wasn’t wrinkles or droopy eyelids; it was because her shtick was outdated, sophomoric, boring and full of shockingly sexist, racist and ethnic stereotypes.

It was cringe-inducing to watch Joan Rivers perform, especially as she got older. Her stand-up comedy was a poisonous mix of rage, vitriol, racism and misogyny. These were the central aspects of her stand-up and they never changed, only the targets, which were mostly other famous females. A classic Rivers joke that attacked women featured her screeching the catchphrase, “I can’t stand her…”

Rivers’s comedy was anchored by a pathological self-hatred and she suffered from bulimia and depression. Rivers was obsessed with and repulsed by the process of normal aging. She despised her body and in particular her genitals.

In the end she ended up being the victim of her own brand of humor. At a celebrity roast in her honor, an American comedy tradition whose appeal is completely lost on me, where the guest of honor has to listen to one person after another deliver jokes at their expense, each speaker let her have it in her own style. The first paragraph of Redmond’s essay describes some of the jokes made about her and they are just unbelievably crude and vicious. I simply cannot understand how a person could say such things to another even in anger, let alone as part of some kind of tribute.

At such events, the target is supposed to be a good sport and laugh at the things said about them but Rivers seemed to find it hard to maintain that façade.

Throughout the evening, Rivers was seated off to the side wincing and drinking white wine. Her reaction to the barrage of invective ranged from angry to embarrassed. When she laughed it was a pained, fake chuckle. Rivers was utterly humiliated and admitted as much in the outstanding documentary made about her life titled, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

She had reaped what she had sowed.


  1. astrosmash says

    “an American comedy tradition whose appeal is completely lost on me”
    For what it’s worth, even as a middle aged natural born US citizen it’s lost on me too!

  2. alkaloid says

    From the article Joan Rivers: “Palestinians Deserve To Be Dead”.

    Joan Rivers is known for her scathing sharp tongue, and yet her take on the Israeli-Gaza crisis is one of her most controversial views to date.

    When told by a TMZ reporter than almost 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, she raised her hands in mock shock (scroll down to watch the film).

    UPDATE: Latest On Joan Rivers Hospitalised

    “Oh my God! Tell that to the people in Hiroshima,” she says on film.

    “Good. Good. When you declare war, you declare war. They started it. We now don’t count who’s dead. You’re dead, you deserve to be dead. Don’t you dare make me feel bad about that.”

    “They were told to get out. They didn’t get out. You don’t get out, you are an idiot. At least the ones that were killed were the ones with low IQs.”

    She went onto describe Gaza’s Hamas government as “terrorists”.

    “They were re-elected by a lot of very stupid people who don’t even own a pencil,” she said.

  3. doublereed says

    Yea, roasts make very little sense to me. I’ve seen some more nicer, light-hearted ones, which were fine. But honestly they weren’t all that funny. And the mean ones are only funny due to shock humor.

    I figure it’s just another random tradition that will fade soon.

  4. Mano Singham says


    I was aware of the awful things she said that you quoted. The post was about her and her type of humor and so I did not want to drag in other issues that were not related.

  5. alkaloid says

    @Mano Singham, #4

    My apologies. I was treating her statements and her humor as related aspects of her personality, and didn’t intend to go off topic from what you had in mind.

  6. Michael Duchek says

    I’ll admit that I’ve never been into the celebrity roasts, either, but I have to point out that in the original format the speakers were close friends of the guest. So at least the remarks were made with some affection. Now days they just want celebrities, so they cast a bunch of people who don’t really know each other, and who google the guest to look for material.

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