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 But the reason Rivers career stalled wasn’t wrinkles or droopy eyelids; it was because her shtick was outdated, sophomoric, boring and full of shockingly sexist, racist and ethnic stereotypes.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.