Is Joan Rivers's comedy overdue for a facelift?
BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Joan Rivers is a talented, important, legendary comedian, who at times is also remarkably unfunny.
Last week, Rivers went on Letterman, where she addressed her highly publicized exit during a recent TV interview. For Rivers' part, she characterized the questions from CNN’s Fredericka Whitfield as "very judgmental, very nasty, very opinionated.” Tensions started to ramp up when Whitfield asked Rivers about her decision to wear fur on the cover of her book, to which Rivers responded, “Are you wearing leather shoes? Then shut up.” Things only devolved from there, and eventually Rivers stormed off. “I've made people laugh for fifty years. I am put on earth to make people laugh," Rivers said. "My book is funny."
Rivers has since told the Wrap that Whitfield “did not seem to understand we were talking about a comedy book and not the transcripts from the Nuremberg Trial." She continued, “Every question was an accusatory one designed to put me on the defensive.”
If Joan Rivers wants to continue to live in the public eye, however, she might be wise to prepare for being put on the defensive occasionally. Her new memoir, Diary of a Mad Diva, rips everyone from Lena Dunham to the victims of Ariel Castro. And she’s already received heavy criticism for calling the president gay and the First Lady a "tranny" on her book tour.
Rivers’ career in showbusiness is extensive and varied. After her famous working relationship with Johnny Carson fell apart, she became a fixture of the red carpet coverage that proceeds awards shows, as well as occasionally popping up (usually with her daughter, Melissa) in third-rate pop culture offerings like Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.
But her star began to rise again after being featured in the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Shortly thereafter, the E! network extended the runtime of Fashion Police (on which Rivers is a contributor) to an hour, capitalizing on her newfound popularity and making the talkfest a cornerstone of their lineup. (Of course, Rivers’ tenure on Fashion Police has not been without controversy, either).
In her own words, Rivers’ summarized the ups and downs of a lengthy career on FX’s Louie thusly: “I was in the shitty lounge...two years ago. For all I know, I’ll be back in the shitty lounge two years from now.”
The irony of Rivers’ comeback in the past few years is that as she’s ramped up her offensive and controversial material, while becoming all the more sensitive about people’s “judgemental” attitudes towards her. For instance, an exchange with Jennifer Lawrence from 2013, wherein she told the actress to “grow up” after Lawrence made several negative comments about Fashion Police, made Rivers look like the immature one. To put simply, Rivers is a lot better at dishing it than taking it.
In all fairness, it’s worth pondering the possibility that Rivers has been treated somewhat unfairly in the larger scheme of things. Don Rickles’ made a racial joke about President Obama not that long ago which blew over fairly quickly. That Rivers is a female comedian, in a traditionally masculine career path, probably makes her somewhat more susceptible to attacks than her male counterparts.
Nevertheless, offensive is offensive. That’s why Rivers presence in 2014 is a bit of a contradiction: While the world has in theory gotten more tolerant of risque material since she started out, it’s also become more self-aware of it. We’ve come along way from the days when Lenny Bruce got thrown off stage just for saying some bad words. As Rivers goes on espousing various sentiments that at one time might have seemed daring, the same jokes now feel lazy. If anything, her fight to stay relevant is making her look increasingly out of touch.
For starters, Rivers doesn’t appear to understand that by insulting groups who have traditionally been on the margins of society, she’s actually alienating about half of the upcoming talent in her field. Although the conversation is occasionally stalled by the old guard, the presence of a more diverse comedic landscape is undeniable.
Then there’s the never-ending debate about political correctness. The odd thing about this is that as much as some seem to feel that modern comedy is being softened or stifled by a mysterious “thought police,” the capability of major comedians to elicit controversy has in no way been lessened. Consider that this year saw a national discussion erupt around the #CancelColbert incident.
The most visible instance of how we think about these evolving nuances was surely the firestorm and subsequent fallout surrounding Daniel Tosh’s notorious rape joke from several years ago. What some don’t get is that no one is saying ugly subjects aren’t okay to joke about entirely. But in contemporary America, the way we joke about them has to be taken into account. As Lindy West wrote on Jezebel following the Tosh controversy:
"The world is full of terrible things, including rape, and it is okay to joke about them. But the best comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse. The key—unless you want to be called a garbage-flavored dick on the Internet by me and other humans with souls and brains—is to be a responsible person when you construct your jokes."
Another way to think about it is to apply Roger Ebert's law of film criticism which is that the important thing isn’t what a movie is about, but rather, “how it is about it.” Of course, if a joke is about rape, the subject of the joke is pretty important, but the general thesis remains the same; any topic is up for grabs, as long as you approach it the right way.
Joan Rivers may indeed have been able to mine some comedy from the idea that Barack Obama, the most powerful man in the world, looks far less intimidating when standing next to his intelligent, accomplished, and singularly powerful partner. However, by calling the president a homosexual and Michelle Obama transgender, she not only missed the point of her own joke—she also insinuated that two frequently maligned communities are worth making fun of for their very existence.
RIvers has even admitted to knowing how important context is to comedy. Rivers told Vulture, “I mean, out of context, I would sue myself! I would walk out on me!” But what Rivers misses here is that context is just as important for the person telling the joke as it is for the person listening to it. When comedians think about what they’re saying—and how they’re saying it—they not only become better citizens of the world; they become funnier comedians.
Some of Joan Rivers celebrity-baiting is innocuous and worth ignoring. But there’s a great divide between poking harmless fun at the outrageous color of someone’s dress and making a joke about date rape just because date rape is a thing that exists. It’s undeniable that Rivers is a groundbreaking comedian who deserves at least a modicum of respect for her place in the history of the art form. But that fact alone doesn’t excuse her from being an outright troll.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.