Joan Rivers, my god, can we talk? That woman went out as she would have wanted, dead from complications of plastic surgery, a few weeks after abusing the Palestinians of Gaza in an appalling but still blackly funny series of remarks (“well, they’re phoning in warnings so only the stupid ones are being killed”). That last intervention will ensure that some of the obsequies will be a little muted in tone — Rivers had a big following among American progressives, but you can’t say she wasn’t even-handed in handing it out. She had a big mainstream following too, and lost a chunk of that with her infamous “9/11 widows” routine, in which she speculated that at least some of the desperate housewives of the New York burbs, on seeing on TV the likely incineration of their  husbands, had (and she would act this out) stamped their feet up and down and gone “oh yes yes yes, thank you, thank you”.

The routine was classic Rivers, neither unctuously political nor faux radical — simply cutting through the bullshit to make the simple acknowledgement of the realities of domestic life, and the venal side of human nature. She will not get anything like the bizarre outpouring of grief earned by Robin Williams, but unlike Williams she’d been funny in the last 10 years. She was funny to the day she died. Your average episode of her basic cable dogshit show Fashion Police was funnier than anything with a hundred times the money spent on writers and stars. How can you grieve for someone whose job was to regularly appall you? How can you grieve for an 81-year-old woman who most likely died from a face-lift? My god, it must have snapped off and flown across the operating theatre. If you find that offensive, you wouldn’t like Rivers anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

Rivers was, if you thought she was funny at all, pretty much funny all the time. “My god, Jennifer Aniston, I’m so sick of her stupid movies. At the end of the last one even the dog was begging to die” (Marley and Me) was about the last joke I remember from Fashion Police. Like a lot of joke-based stand-ups she was blessed with the human capacity for forgetting — an hour after seeing Steven Wright or Rivers and laughing fit to piss  (and let’s face it, she was in her 70s and still performing, there’s no way she wasn’t with you there) you’d forgotten all but the last half dozen gags, like the tail-end of a dream. She never did serious, she never did heartwarming (far as I recall) — she just did funny.

But there is a serious point about Rivers, and that is that she was far more of a pioneer and innovator than Robin Williams. A showbiz-crazy New York Jewish gal, she failed for years — at acting, singing, everything — before she found a knack for stand-up. She rose as part of an almost completely forgotten cultural phalanx — the women stand-ups of the 1950s and ’60s, of whom there were many. Household names, too, national stars in the US and syndication. Today only Rivers and Phyllis Diller are remembered, partly for longevity and, in Diller’s case, because she reversed the style (which Rivers kept), of being glammed up to the nines. Diller made a joke about her plainness, and that insured her a permanent niche.

The others styled themselves as Rivers did until her death, and I guess beyond (she’s left instructions for burial — she wants to be depilated), as glamorous, slightly upmarket WASPs. The look gave them licence — on American tonight shows, in nightclubs and Vegas — to do surprisingly risque material for the time. They were allowed in to the all-male bastion for one big reason — stand-up comedy’s raison d’etre, its cultural role is to ceaselessly restage the mystery of gendered human beings. The fact that there are men and women, that they find their meaning in each other and yet are simultaneously mutually intolerable, powers the folktales of every culture and is projected cosmically, and stand-up is merely our way of simultaneously releasing the tension of that and pondering the enigma. The pre-’80s female stand-ups did that from the “other side” of the patriarchal culture, in a way that could not be substituted for.

Rivers’ innovation was to sharpen those jokes from the teasing, sometimes fey manner to a very edgy barely concealed hostility, a lot of it done through the enactment of female jealousy. When DJ Robin Quivers used an award speech to tearfully recount abuse by her father, Rivers remarked, “you should have been glad of the attention. I saw you backstage, bitch, you looked like a mudslide” — a putdown as carved and detailed as an epigram from Martial. The other item she added was something very visceral, of the female body, the abject — “my god, when I was pregnant I was so big when my waters broke my dog drowned! And he was in Detroit!” — contradicted by the high finish of her appearance. It was an extended performance of the core contradiction of public femininity, and it went for decades. She was not only doing a sort of goyim minstrel act, she was essentially a drag act who happened to be a woman.

God knows I don’t feel a skerrick of sympathy or loss for Rivers herself. But as Billy Wilder said, walking away from Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral: “Worse than no more Lubitsch, no more Lubitsch jokes.”  She died after days in an induced coma, like everyone who watched Anzac Girls. Can we talk?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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