Legacy: Joan Rivers, Exit Laughing

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If there was a god, it’s apparent that he/she has no sense of humor. Still recovering from the loss of comic god Robin Williams only three weeks ago, another comedy giant has left the building.

Joan Rivers is gone.

After a routine throat procedure, she stopped breathing and was taken to Mount Sinai hospital. After going into cardiac arrest, her doctors put into an induced coma, and after hoping for a recovery, and spending her last few days on life support, her family issued a statement that she had passed. I’m still confused as to how this happened at all. And I surmise we’ll be hearing much more about the Yorkville Endoscopy procedures that ended her life in the coming weeks/months.

So to say it’s a sad day in the entertainment world is an understatement. I – most of us, really – grew up, with Joan Rivers as a part of our very fabric, for better or worse.

Her rise and temporary fall is practically mythic. After establishing herself as a stand up comic force to be reckoned with – and in a male-dominated field at that – Johnny Carson made Rivers a household name with her numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show,” during the 1970s, then by allotting her the permanent guest hostess gig in 1983. Her star was in orbit until she was fucked over by that “friend” (well-documented, and something she never really emotionally recovered from). After landing her own talk show, the ill conceived and short-lived “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” Carson shunned Rivers as a friend and a talent, and never spoke to her again; she was barred from the show and unofficially blacklisted in Hollywood. Her show’s subsequent failure also briefly destroyed her career and was one catalyst to the suicide of her husband Edgar Rosenberg, which shattered her, in 1987.

She was persona non grata and sadly, a punch line for a cruel, albeit temporary, time.

She inched her way back, adamantly, forcefully and tirelessly, regaining her name, her brand, and her humanity. She made brilliantly funny guest appearances on Howard Stern’s FM radio show, started another more successful afternoon TV talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show” (which won her an Emmy and lasted for five years), made a fortune on QVC designing and selling costume jewelry, was center square during a 90s revival of “The Hollywood Squares,” and was Tony-nominated for her performance as Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, in “Sally Marr…and Her Escorts.” She never met a gig she didn’t like. She never allowed fragility to define her, rather perseverance and tenacity. From this point on, she was unstoppable, and where once she was a superstar fading, she was ubiquitous from the start of the aughts until the end of her life.

I won’t play revisionist history and state that I’ve been an ardent fan in recent years (I mean, even before her “fall” there were times I cringed rather than laughed). In fact, more often than not, I’ve been angered by the paths Rivers has taken in her final decade or so. There was/is a fine line between being an “insult comic” (Joan was Queen to Don Rickles’ King) and being hateful, vindictive. Always a brilliant, incisive commentator of the world around us, she (in my apparently minority opinion) diminished her art for pure commerce and ego. Where, once upon a time, she eviscerated her targets with intelligence and truth seeped with hilarious sardonic overkill, in recent years she circumvented the truths and went for the jugular, often mean-spiritedly and too-often maddeningly ugly. Particularly as the go-to fashion mouthpiece for every post-Awards show since the mid-1990s, until it became her (in)famous “Fashion Police” specials, which were merely loathsome bully roundtables by a select group of individuals who really had no business insulting or critiquing anyone’s fashion choices. It pissed me off that this comic genius relegated to this. Which, for better or worse, begot countless other wannabes, making any Awards season almost unbearable (it didn’t help that I already thought that fashion killed Rock n Roll). But, it’s been her métier for the last two decades of her life, and cemented her already-icon status for eternity.

Besides, it doesn’t depreciate her overall legacy. Only a liar and a fool would negate or diminish her stature as a trailblazer, nonpareil. She was a cultural emblem, and a tireless proponent of equality (even before it was hip to be that, headlining one of the very first – if not THE first – HIV/AIDS awareness charity events back in 1983! Unheard of for a celebrity of Joan’s stature!), and, most importantly, as one of the last of the great legendary stand-up comics. And that’s how I’ll always remember her. From howling with laughter listening to her classic 70s album, “What Becomes A Semi-Legend Most” (which I listened to again a few days before she passed, and boy, it still holds up), to her outrageously funny “Tonight Show” guest host gigs (I always wished that Carson would retire and she would take over) which I’ve often perused YouTube to watch, to those aforementioned Howard Stern appearances…the woman epitomizes steadfastness. She lived for her family and, unwaveringly, her audience – and they loved her. She loved what she did, even when she didn’t have to do it anymore. But, thankfully, she did.

So Rest in Prada, funny lady. You deserve it. Knock ‘em dead(er) on the other side.

 


Joan Rivers

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