That question-turned-iconic catchphrase never needed an answer. Audiences knew that roaring laughter, potential incontinence, and moments of, “Am I allowed to laugh at that?” were sure to ensue.
On September 4th, 2014, the world lost an incredible talent. The late, the great, the often-irate Joan Rivers stands among the ranks of Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, and other legends who broke through the walls of the Boys’ Club and paved the way for generations of comediennes to come. She hit the stand up circuit and set it on fire. With her rapid-fire wit and dynamic physicality she was plucked up into the world of television. Those in front and behind the camera loved her instantly. She was bold, challenging everything female comedians were expected to be. She addressed things no one else was talking about. She had no fear or shame when told she was taking it too far. If anything, that fueled her on further.
She became the darling of The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson declared that she was destined for stardom. For over twenty years, she wrote for and appeared on the show. She continued to perform her standup, everywhere from closet-sized clubs to major big-city comedy venues. In 1986, the launch of The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, though short-lived, marked her place in history as the first woman with her own late show on a principal network. The rest of her career consisted of more rises and falls than the breasts of a jogging Kim Kardashian. Joan was fiercely dedicated to her career; determined to book work, whether it was working a huge television gig or simply a few days on a cruise ship. She wrote constantly; plays, books, new routines. Every joke she ever wrote was recorded on an index card and stored in a giant filing system. There’s no doubt that she was as sharp as her tongue. Her mind was always ahead of her words, her responses quick and on point, and her performances were just as impressive and affecting in her last years as they were from the start.
The role of public image in Joan’s life was much like my digestive system after a late night Taco Bell run. Sometimes your satisfied stomach adores you, other times that bastard organ betrays you and damns you to wallow in agony and regret. Plastic surgery became her obsession, and after a number of procedures people began likening her to a freak show attraction. One of the most important things a comedian, celebrity, or anyone really, can learn is to develop a thick skin. Joan’s was thicker than the layers of makeup she put on everyday before being seeing anyone. That toughness, that ability to keep her head held high is something I’ve always admired. All physical traits aside, her public image was and remains highly contested. Some people adore her as a queen of comedy or just enjoy hearing a sassy older woman talking about her vagina. Her lack of self-censorship led many people to view her as a terrible person. I never met her. I can’t judge the content of her character. I can’t judge the contents of her closet because they probably cost more than my college education. She did say offensive things (and I mean really) offensive things. She would be the first to admit that. I won’t even try to separate what was belief from what was performance, because I’m not qualified to judge.
The Joan Rivers I will always remember was a huge inspiration to me. As an aspiring comedian/comedienne/I’ll-go-by-whatever-you’ll-pay-me-for, I studied her performances, her stand up, her everything, because her stamina, fast-talking wit, explosive shouting, and exaggerated use of body and face are right up my alley. If she, along with the other leading ladies of laughter, had not dared to break the walls of the boys’ club, I’d likely be too intimidated to pursue a career in comedy. She had a dream, to be a performer, and let nothing stand in her way. She had the tenacity to keep going, going, going until she made it happen. She refused to let the industry change her, though the backlash often cost opportunities or burned bridges. Her strength was undeniable. You wouldn’t believe how much she could bench press (emotionally). I could certainly use a dose of her confidence when it comes to moving past failure and embracing new possibilities. She often mentioned that she wanted to keep working, keep entertaining, and keep performing until she died. It’s a comfort to know she succeeded, but it’s hard not to think there was more she might have done.
I look up to Joan posthumously. She always insisted that she wanted her funeral to be a grand, ridiculously over the top celebration. She hoped that people would laugh. Still working, still entertaining, still caring. A devoted mother and grandmother, she leaves behind a family, of blood but also of love, who still feel the effects of her presence in their lives. For all of the laughter lines you’ve given to the world and times you’ve made me think, “Someday, I want to be up on that stage, talking about my vagina,” I thank you.
Joan Rivers will not be forgotten. I like to think that she won’t let us. I like to think that ghosts exist, even if only for her. Imagine ecto-Joan Fashion Police-ing everywhere she floats. She can finally get close enough to spot all of the panty lines.
Oh, and as for the haters? You’d better watch out. You know she’s going to be haunting ALL OF YOU.