Joan Rivers made no effort to be liked. That is why she was so funny – and liberating

"My face has been tucked in more than a bedsheet at the Holiday Inn"

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I never much liked Joan Rivers. You didn’t like Joan Rivers, that was the point. Liking is the kind of wishy-washy, jelly-for-backbone emotion Joan Rivers would have turned her expensively whittled nose up at, had she been able to move a muscle in her face these past 20 years. She lived to make people roar – with laughter, preferably, but if not then outrage would do.

Still, the American comedian, who died on Thursday, aged 81, would have killed to hear the tributes being paid to her now. She loved the spotlight, the sickly glow of the mortician’s torch no exception. Ever the scene stealer, she was sure to have her thoughts on death, funerals and the like widely circulated before the event – just in case anyone got their Dead Joan one-liners in first. In her 2012 book, she instructed her daughter, Melissa, to make her funeral a “huge showbiz affair” with Meryl Streep “crying, in five different accents” and a wind machine. “So that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyoncé’s.”

Even in death, Rivers determined, she would be fabulously outrageous. She made being outrageous into an art form; and did it so effortlessly, so frequently, so apparently thoughtlessly, it is easy to forget the comic skill behind the zingers which made the world wince. “Elizabeth Taylor is so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin”. Ouch – but it’s the ludicrous image of someone slathering mayonnaise on aspirin that’s funny; who does it is more or less irrelevant. She wasn’t mean for the sake of being mean, she was mean for the sake of being funny. Which she was – hilariously so.

Pioneer is an overused word but Rivers was the real deal. In the absence of any female stand-up role models, she took her lacerating lead from Lenny Bruce and started out on the tough New York circuit of the Sixties alongside Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. For years, she was told that she was too brash, too old, too unladylike to succeed. It’s hard to imagine now, in our tell-all age, but when Rivers performed a routine about having an affair, Jack Lemmon walked out of her show in disgust. Imagine if he’d lived to see a Sarah Silverman gig, or one of Chelsea Handler’s.

And that’s the point. Rivers’ fearless mining of her own life, her body, relationships, sex life, divorce and widowhood paved the way for every female stand-up who came after. They may not like what she did, they may reject her often hoary, anti-feminist gags, but her husband, bedroom and vagina jokes set the bar for what a woman could get away with – or not – in the name of entertainment. 


Her career blazed a trail: she was for a time the highest paid entertainer on the Las Vegas strip; she was the first (and still only) female talk-show host on network television. She invented, for better or worse, the quintessentially modern and parasitic entertainment that is red-carpet watching. Celebrities in bad dresses might be fish in a barrel but she shot them so beautifully. When she stopped laying into Cher, one of her favourite targets, for a time, the pop star was moved to ask her, “What’s the matter? I’m not hot enough any more to be in the act?” In fact, Rivers always kept her best/worst barbs for herself. “My face has been tucked in more times than a bedsheet at the Holiday Inn” and so on. As the title of her autobiography put it, I Hate Everyone... Starting with Me.

That’s the key to Rivers. She was never out to win affection, just an audience. She had a cushion in her study embroidered with the maxim DON’T EXPECT PRAISE WITHOUT ENVY UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD. Over the next few days, her brilliant one-liners will be recalled as often as her off-colour ones. Like all comedians, she stumbled badly when she punched down, whether mocking Adele and Lena Dunham for their weight, or most recently suggesting that dead Palestinians in Gaza were responsible for their own fate. I don’t believe she saw a difference. In her eyes, everything – Holocaust to couture, plastic surgery to her husband’s suicide – was game for a gag. She could not, or would not, think non-comically. If there was a one-liner in there, however unsayable, she would tease it out like a compulsive court jester.

“If you’re going to die, die interesting!” she wrote. “One morning you’ll wake up and read a headline: Joan Rivers Found Dead… On George Clooney’s Face. Clooney Was So Bereft All He Could Say Was, ‘xjfhfyrnem.” She didn’t manage that, but the world of comedy will be a significantly more boring place from now on.

Twitter: @alicevjones