Thursday, September 4, 2014

Joan Rivers: Despite All The Plastic Surgeries, Her Greatest Appeal Was That She Was So Real

Can we talk? So many people knew Joan Rivers as this snarky, rather bizarre octogenarian fashionista who had way too many plastic surgeries. Yes, she was all that. But she was of course so much more. A comedy pioneer, Rivers was one of the very first successful female standup comics. To an even greater degree than her peers such as Jean Carroll, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Moms Mabley and then Lily Tomlin, Rivers made it really big in nightclubs and then on television in the 1960s. 

Rivers spent most of her adult life immersed in the smoky, cologne-scented universe populated and dominated by insecure, pathologically sarcastic, sexist male comics. And she didn't flinch. She was fearless. Or at least she appeared that way. I'm sure there were times in which she was trembling inside. But she didn't show it. 

A tough but fragile survivor, Rivers, who was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky to Russian Jewish immigrants, carved a path for all the outspoken, outrageous, funny women who would follow her. Everyone from Roseanne, Whoopi and Ellen to Chelsea Handler, Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman owe Rivers a debt of gratitude. 

All of these women have been known to cross that imaginary, admittedly subjective line of decency. It's a line with which every comic flirts and sometimes fears. But Rivers embraced it. She loved controversy. Her friends say she was inspired by Lenny Bruce, the most controversial and brilliant of all comics. Rivers didn't casually throw around cuss words like Lenny, but she liked to shake things up. And she could be downright vicious. 

While most humor is rooted in cynicism, Joan's act was marinated in it. She had no patience for cheaters or liars or fools or big shots. She hated corrupt politicians and shallow, sexy Hollywood starlets. She tore them apart. And we loved it. 

Her humor grew increasingly vitriolic as she got older. But being a woman in the masculine domain of standup comedy, and being a widow and single mother, undoubtedly created in her a thick skin and a very healthy cynicism about men in general. 
But she did have a heart. Rivers, who grew up in Brooklyn, was by all accounts a loving mother, if in a rather strange and abrasive way. In the counterfeit world of show business, where real life is often looked upon as simply a nuisance you have to deal with between gigs, Joan's loving bond with her daughter, Melissa, and vice versa, say a lot. 

But what was the secret to Rivers' great and durable career success? It's pretty simple, really. In addition to her brilliant wit and comic timing, and her knack for recognizing pomposity and absurdity in almost every situation, Joan's greatest appeal from that very first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson back in 1965 was that she was so real

Yes. Real. Even later in life, after all those plastic surgeries made her face look freakish and rendered her virtually unrecognizable, Rivers was ironically still about as real as you could get. She still connected with people. A Beverly Hills and Park Avenue maven, she remained skeptical of fame, fortune and celebrity even as she reveled in it. 

Despite all her surgical and comedic efforts to run from the little girl she was, Joan could never shake that funny, ugly duckling from Brooklyn. Her calling was to make the world laugh. And she did make us laugh, for 81 years. 

So, on that note, I'm sure Joan would approve of this headline I've worked up announcing her death: 




  1. Jamie:

    As usual. right on the mark. I've followed her career throughout the years and greatly enjoyed her appearances on the Tonight Show. I never understood why Johnny Carson and Joan had some kind of falling out. That's too bad because he saw her talent, realized how exceptional she was was, and gave her a great forum to showcase her incredible ability to make us laugh. One great Lady and she will definitely be missed.


    1. eloquently stated, john. carson felt betrayed when joan started her own late night show. johnny was being petty. he should have just apologized. she did nothing wrong. she could be a jerk at times, but the carson feud was all about johnny thinking he owned her just because she was a guest host on his show for a few years.

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