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Joan Rivers died on me—literally.
I’ve loved Rivers since I first saw her on Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D-List in 2007, the same year Britney Spears shaved her head and Lindsay Lohan posed for her first mugshot. Rivers lacked decorum, which is a fancy way to say she believed in cursing in public. For years, I’ve wanted to interview Rivers, and a few weeks ago, I learned I finally would speak to the grand dame herself. In between making fun of Fashion Week guests’ hideous outfits on Fashion Police, she would have sat down for an interview with me.
But then she stopped breathing during surgery on August 28 and died a week later on September 4 in New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. She was 81.
Joking about Rivers’s death may seem tacky, but that’s what Rivers would want us to do. Shortly after her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, killed himself, Rivers went to dinner with her daughter, Melissa, at Spago. Looking at the prices on the menu, Rivers reportedly said to Melissa, “If Daddy were here and saw these prices, he'd kill himself all over again.” They burst into laughter, and the other customers looked at them like they were insane.
But as one of the first ladies of comedy, Rivers understood that humans—especially outcasts like women and gay men—must laugh at unfortunate circumstances if they want to survive.
Rivers's rise to prominence started on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the 1960s, where she would perform stand-up and, in the 1980s, occasionally guest host. On April 23, 1967, Rivers performed stand-up on The Ed Sullivan Show and mocked the way society treated women.
“The way the styles are today, I’m glad I’m married because if I was single, I could never get married looking like this,” Rivers began. “I feel sorry for any single girl today—the styles and the whole society is not for single girls. Single men, yes.” Through comedy, she discussed gender issues on one of the most popular television shows in America.
These comedy sets made Rivers a household name, but she never quite got the the respect afforded male comics like George Carlin. When Rivers got her own talk show on Fox, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers—which her husband produced—Carson stopped speaking to her and barred her from appearing on The Tonight Show, an embargo that lasted for a quarter century until Jimmy Fallon invited Rivers onto the show this year.
Her show failed to get an audience, and Fox fired her as a host in May of 1987. Three months later, her husband killed himself. To heal, Rivers and her daughter played themselves in a NBC TV movie about the suicide called The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.
“People keep asking me, 'Why are you doing this project?’” Rivers told People magazine in 1994. “Because it heals. The more you talk about anything, the better it is.”
In the past ten years, Rivers has remained relevant by making fun of pop stars on Fashion Police on E! and screaming on Celebrity Apprentice 2, where Rivers went haywire on her D-list co-stars after Donald Trump kicked off Melissa. The comedian called Playboy model Brande Roderick a “a piece of shit and a stupid blonde” and told poker player Annie Duke, “Poker players are trash, darling!”
“[I’ve had a] 43-year-old career!” Rivers screamed at one point. “I don’t work with scum!”
Some people might turn up their noses at that kind of reality TV dialogue, but Rivers didn't give a shit. Her comedy was resolutely lowbrow, or no-brow. Talk shows, reality shows, TV movies, standup sets in casinos, guest spots on Louie—she did it all, and was funny everywhere she went, crafting jokes along the way for (and about) the single girl and other people society disrespects. She never shut her mouth, and for that we should be thankful.
As recently as last month, Rivers sparked controversy by giving her honest opinion when asked about the crisis in Gaza: “[Palestinians] started it,” Rivers said. “They didn’t get out. You don’t get out, you are an idiot. At least the ones that were killed.”
For what's it's worth, I disagree on Rivers’s views on Palestine (I never pick my celebrity role models for their political beliefs), but I admire her willingness to state her opinions in the age of basic bitches and thinkpieces.
If there’s a lesson to learn from Rivers's life, it’s to fuck decorum and stay lowbrow.
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