Joan Rivers, a trailblazing comedian, left us today. Younger performers may not realize just how influential Rivers was because she had the rare ability to reinvent herself, her cultural and industry relevancy, repeatedly, in the face of brutal life and career events.
In the era of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Second Wave Feminism, Joan Rivers, along with Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields, paved the way for female stand up comedians and a more honest and authentic way for women to be seen and heard. Sure, these women wore cocktail dresses, always had their hair done and the jewels on but instead of standing behind their men, they stood apart: on stage, in front of the country, speaking to how their husbands, kids and options disappointed them. Their gags were often self effacing but resonated a longing for something more substantial in life, something different. Something beyond housewife and parent. They voiced a gender-centered, societal anger in an era when righteously angry females were not accepted as a reality. They may seem quaint when compared to the comediennes of today, but stand up performers didn't broach the subject matter or employ the same dialectic these ladies used to create comedy in the late 50's through the 60's and 70's. They were trailblazers and audiences, especially women, embraced them and their truths. They showed every female comic who followed how to succeed in the biz and they did it in a man's world with all the attendant Mad Men style shit that entailed.
These ladies had to kiss, bite and then shake the hands that fed them because all the opportunities came courtesy of the same men and cultural constructs they were skewering in front of the camera. No way to make your own career opportunities. No independent production companies with alternative distribution pipelines. No YouTube and Twitter to build your grassroot fan base. No comedy festivals to be broadcast to a well targeted demographic. No reality shows to take the edge off your persona and convince the public you're really lovable in pseudo-private. Just seven minute sets on variety and talk shows and week after week of live shows for unknown audiences. While Fields succumbed to a pulmonary embolism at age 48 and Diller went the sitcom and film route eventually becoming a permanent guest star, Rivers went for broke. In the world of comedy, the late night talk show was and continues to be hallowed ground. It led to the prestige gigs of award show hosting and becoming a treasured national icon.
It put the performer and his pov into the homes of tens of millions of Americans five nights a week. A degree of influence no politician could hope to achieve. She made it to the mountain top and did so without taking the societal and gender-aware bite out of her humor. It was big news when she became the permanent Tonight Show sub for Johnny Carson and even bigger news when she chose to step out of the role of comedy consort and compete with him on her own show at a fledgling Fox network. The show failed miserably, her reputation was in tatters and she would find herself widowed a year later. A personal and professional disaster of which Rivers has written at length. But what a fabulous flame out! Here was a woman who could have settled in comfortably and profitably as Carson's substitute host. An ersatz talk show housewife. Keeping his show hosting dinner warm when he was off making bank in Vegas, emceeing the Oscars or vacationing with one of his real wives. Joan Rivers chose not to have a career in the shadow of a man while waiting for him to pass the torch in a decade or two, if the network suits didn't decide she wasn't attractive or young enough and kick her to the curb first. Rivers chose to stand on her own and let the chips fall where they may, all the while being portrayed as an ingrate bitch. Would a man ever be subjected to that level of degradation or would he get kudos for his independence, for taking his turn when opportunity knocked? Do we see this level of creative career risk today? It's hard to think of anything close. In an era of three networks and a shaky fourth being born and financed on the back of a cartoon family, Rivers' move was pure balls. When her show was cancelled, her professional reputation in the toilet and her manager/husband lost to suicide, she figured out how to create her comedic career all over again and make more money doing it. Knowing she had to stay relevant and independent for the rest of her days, she did just that. Broadway, a documentary, cable shows, award shows, books, product lines: Rivers embraced the times and new generations of audience, with a degree of success unmatched by other performers. Joan Rivers seemed to learn the universal life lesson that, at a core level, you can only depend on yourself and speak with your own authentic voice. Once you do, opportunities and options appear for as long as you want them. As a performer, that gift of independence allows you to take risks again and again, even when no one else will back you and long after the competition has fallen away.
I don't believe we'd have the biting, risk taking, sometimes shocking, on-the-nose comedy and creativity of Roseanne, Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer or Leslie Jones, if Joan Rivers and her contemporaries hadn't paved the way. We still don't have a woman in the influential 11:30pm (or even 12:30pm) talk show host seat with one of the big networks, though the positions have changed hands a dozen times with lesser known talents, since Rivers had her turn.
Now is a great time to watch Rivers' seminal stand up routines on YouTube, her appearance on Louie, the 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work or read her 2012 Hollywood Reporter article and consider what it took to get to a place where a woman had the chance to risk it all and the epic bravery it took to seize those opportunities, deal with the consequences and rise again.
Bravo, Joan Rivers. Bravo.