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Joan Rivers: An Appreciation of a Feminist Comedy Revolutionary

Joan Rivers: An Appreciation of a Feminist Comedy Revolutionary

Like the rest of the world, I’m really sad about Joan Rivers’ death. I didn’t know her, though I met her once at the press day for the riveting and brilliant documentary about her life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. She was gracious, and everyone wanted a picture with Joan. (Sadly, I can’t find mine.) She was genuine and biting and, as I’m sure you will agree, she was fucking funny.

Joan Rivers was a trailblazer and survivor, and she is the perfect example of the difference between what happens to men and what happens to women. I can’t help but think that, had she been of a different generation, she would not have had to go through the tsuris that she did to become a success. But with every defeat, she pushed forward, and she was simply a terrific role model for success.

For women’s accomplishments, there has to be a first, and Joan was that in so many ways.

Did you know that she directed and co-wrote a movie with Billy Crystal, Rabbit Test,  in 1978? I can count the women directors of that period on one hand, and she was one of them. Unfortunately, the movie did not do well, and she never directed again. Check out Hitfix’s memoriam on her talking about Rabbit Test. Ultimately, she planted her feet in the sand for women in comedy, and there was no going back. 

Joan was the first woman to host her own late-night comedy show. You’ve all heard the story about how she was the permanent guest host on the Tonight show and took the unprecedented opportunity to host her own show on the new Fox network. Johnny Carson (who she admits made her career) was so angry when she told him she was leaving, he banned her from the show and never spoke to her again. 

Can you imagine him doing that to a man? Look at all the dudes who have started in one place and gone off to host their own shows with their male colleagues applauding them and sending them off in style with love and praise because it reflects well on them. With his public dismissal of Rivers, Johnny Carson sabotaged her career and caused serious repercussions in Joan’s career.

But again, even though her show wasn’t a success (let’s also not forget that Fox was so new at the time that no one thought the network was going to survive), she planted the flag for women who came after her.

It’s interesting that we are still having the conversation about what women comedians can and cannot be so many years after Joan Rivers just did her thing. She got up on stage and told jokes about abortion, sex and pregnancy — anything and everything about her life. Her voice was different because there were so few women doing what she did. She blazed the trail for all the women today, who can make jokes because Joan made them first.

She didn’t really talk about her trailblazing legacy in public — she always said she was still pushing doors open for herself. But you could tell that she took the role of grand dame seriously in how she supported younger comedians across the board. Their love and devotion were abundantly evident from Kathy Griffin’s appearance on Anderson Cooper’s show, during which the younger comedian praised Joan’s professional tenacity — and her appreciation that she got to make people laugh for a living. 

Lastly, I’m going to miss Joan saying some crazy inappropriate joke that ricochets across the Internet. But I think we have to thank Joan Rivers above all others for giving us Jenny Slate, Rosie O’Donnell, Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and so many countless others that have all brightened up our day and made the world easier to bear at some point in our lives.

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