When Joan Rivers passed away Thursday at age 81, social media quickly become a place for us to channel our grief and reflect on the life and work of a comedian who worked harder and longer than most of her contemporaries to make her own lane. And, inevitably, people referred to her as a woman in comedy.
Rivers has long been cited as a role model for women who came after her. In a Fresh Air interview from 2010, she addressed this belief that all she did was open doors for women:
“But I think of opening doors not just for women comedians — I never think about women. I think just [that I’m] always trying to push for myself, push the boundaries, [and] make them listen. Make them listen to the truth and laugh about it.”
And she did. That was her job, and she took it seriously. She was sharp, able to cleave open the double standard and add her insight, as seen in this 1967 clip of Rivers on The Ed Sullivan Show:
You’ll read about how she opened doors for women, and it’s true, she did. But even Rivers bristled at the past tense, opened. In the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, she claims, “I’m still opening the doors.” She picked the locks, too.
Once asked Joan what’s the biggest mistake young comics make. She said focusing on who doesn’t want them. Fuck em keep moving. Good advice.
— Kathleen Madigan (@kathleenmadigan) September 4, 2014
Joan Rivers had a library-style filing cabinet containing 1000s of jokes that she wrote. Hilarity + hard work = genius.
— Neal Brennan (@nealbrennan) September 4, 2014
You don’t get to choose being funny—or how you channel it. One of her more famous quotes touched on that: “Winston Churchill said if you make someone laugh, you give them a vacation. And maybe you take the worst thing in the world, make it funny and give them a vacation from horror.”
Rewatching her appearance on Louie late last night, I was struck by how raw her monologue is. She gets at why comedians do what they do, and it’s heartbreaking.
If anything, read Julie Klausner’s Vulture piece about working with Rivers. She was one of the first guests on Klausner’s podcast, How Was Your Week, and Klausner points out that “Joan got a lot of shit for having the nerve to say ‘yes’ to opportunities that came her way, from cruises to lecture circuits to dinky podcasts like mine. But when the alternative is fading away, the possibility of burning out gets smaller every day you decide to participate in life instead of observing it from the sidelines.”
Klausner also talked about the criticism Rivers received in the online circus:
“We called her a throwback when she was actually ahead of her time. We used the internet to call her mean. Everybody made fun of her face, as though any of us were ever given a choice to look like Angelina Jolie at birth but just checked the wrong box. She took jobs that weren’t cool, and her only reward was more work. She was never — EVER — given her due.”
She defended herself to the very end, even when the appropriateness of her comedy was questioned. She remained fearless. She worked until the very end, because that’s what she knew to do. She had to keep opening doors. She had to keeping reinventing. She had to exist.
Now we just have to make her funeral wishes reality.
Photo via Underbelly Limited/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)