Amidst the many R.I.P.’s and lines about Joan Rivers’ legendary status on Twitter, some of the better ones talked about how much she’d hate all of this warm-hearted horseshit. “If you wanna honor Joan Rivers, say the most acerbic, outrageous, mean jokes you possibly can. All this nice crap would infuriate her,” wrote Greg Cwik. Danny Bowes of Salt Lake City Weekly, meanwhile, had another take: “The dilemma: having a terrific Joan Rivers joke, that she would find funny but no one else would. Leaning toward respecting the living. RIP.” That really is the rub: it’s sad to know Rivers is gone and hard to do justice to her, but someone as brassy and unapologetically confrontational as she was would probably crack jokes at her own funeral.
The great comic and personality died today, September 4, following a vocal cord surgery that left her in intensive care after her heart stopped. She leaves behind a legacy of never apologizing for any joke or seeing any subject as taboo, all to her advantage. She was 81 years old, but her death still comes as a bit of a shock because she was so active right up until the end. She continued performing stand-up, kept up her podcast “In Bed with Joan,” and even taped an episode of “Fashion Police” for last week’s Primetime Emmy Awards, just ten days before her death.
For those unfamiliar with her work, the excellent 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is available on Netflix and is far from the hagiographic portrait it could have been. Criticwire has collected a number of remembrances and tributes from critics, journalists, and fellow comics, among others.
Meredith Borders, Badass Digest
This is the woman who once said, “I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking,” and that is exactly what set her apart. She was unrepentant and merciless, but had a self-deprecating cheer that warmed her up, even if it never quite softened her. She was mentored by Johnny Carson and influenced by Lenny Bruce, but she was her own animal. Joan Rivers was a woman who said anything and got in the face of everyone, and we need more women like that. I hate that she’s gone, but she probably doesn’t. She worked until the end, looked great until the end, remained relevant and sharper than a blade until the end. That’s better than most of us will manage. Read more.
Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times
“Can we talk?” she demanded in her signature call to gossip and skewer — the brassy Jewish-American princess from Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Larchmont, in Westchester County, leveling with the world. She would take the stage in a demure black sheath and ladylike pearls, a tiny bouffant blonde with a genteel air of sorority decorum. Then she’d stick her finger down her throat and regurgitate the dirt on the rich and famous, the stream-of-conscious take on national heroes and sacrosanct cultural idols. On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: “Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.” On Charlton Heston: “He told us, ‘I got Alzheimer’s.’ Surprise! He’s been wearing his wig sideways for 19 years.” Read more.
Drew McWeeny, HitFix
On the only film Rivers directed: “I am not necessarily defending “Rabbit Test.” It’s too busy, too unsure of itself, too desperate to please. But I am defending Joan Rivers, and I’m making the case that she should have had more opportunities. It is upsetting to realize how little has changed since 1978. Look at Lexi Alexander, who made “Punisher: War Zone.” She’s got enough onscreen chops and enough behind-the-scenes credits that she should be working all the time. After “Punisher: War Zone” was released, though, she was pretty much offered up as the sacrificial lamb, and I think she took a hit in her career that a man would not have if he’d made that same film. Things haven’t changed much at all.” Read more.
On Rivers setting up the biggest laugh he ever got…and laughed at it herself: “At the Q-and-A session after the second screening, someone asked Rivers if humor is hereditary. She said yes, adding that her parents were funny and that’s where she got the gift. She also credited geography: ‘Thank God I was born in New York. If I had been born in Salt Lake City…’ She didn’t finish the thought, but the crowd laughed anyway. I got my turn to ask a question, and I asked it. But I also added a comment: ‘I’m from Salt Lake City, and I say this with love: F*** you.’” Read more.
She was a glass ceiling-smasher and she knew it, but there is something in her approach to her work that speaks, in general, to any entertainer, any person passionate about anything, any person living in the world. In any line of work, in any life, there are pressures to make people happy, to be unobjectionable, to be for everybody. Listen to those voices too much, and you’ll lose your own. Not Rivers. She was 200% voice. There are already a million well-earned tributes out there to Rivers, her standup, her TV hosting, her commentary. But the example she set with her tongue-lashing career goes beyond those. Rivers’ lesson is not to be nasty, necessarily; not all of us have the gift to get away with insult comedy. Not to be rude, if that’s not your thing. But to be specific. To be you. Read more.
Nathan Rabin, The Dissolve
But while Rivers was strong enough to blaze a trail for boundary-pushing female comedians, she also never lost a fundamental vulnerability and humanity that made her relatable despite the Shakespearean twists and turns of a remarkable life. When I interviewed Louis C.K. a few years back, he talked extensively about his admiration for Rivers’ work ethic and strength, but was particularly moved by her ability to overcome things that would crush lesser souls. C.K. said of Rivers and particularly “A Piece Of Work,” “The thing that kept getting me in the movie was that every hard thing that happened to her, like her husband killing himself, and all of the losses she suffered, when she would describe them, she would say, ‘That was really difficult.’ She never said, ‘That killed me.’ The kind of things that people say. ‘I was overcome by that. That was too much.’ She would just say, ‘That was difficult.’” Read more.
But Rivers’ real distinction is being one of the earliest female comedians to be relentlessly filthy, and also to talk in an unfiltered way about being a woman. Nearly 30 years before Sarah Silverman, Rivers’ career almost ended when she told an abortion joke on the air. (“I couldn’t even say the word ‘abortion,’ ” she told Terry Gross a few years ago. “I had to say, ‘She had 14 appendectomies.’ … Everyone went to Cuba to get appendectomies.”) Read more.
Sonio Sariaya, The A.V. Club
What’s interesting, and true to Joan, is that she embraced what others might call her trashiness as part and parcel of being a real and flawed human being. Nothing was safe from her barbed wit—and there was no situation or human emotion that she wouldn’t try to mine for humor, whether that was Israel’s conflict with Palestine, Liz Taylor’s addiction-related weight loss, or the 10-year captivity of Ariel Castro’s victims. She didn’t just deflate preconceived notions of femininity or motherhood—she deflated everything. There isn’t a person on the planet who could sit comfortably with every single thing Joan Rivers said, and that is the point. She took what was comfortable and unsaid about the world and said it, uncomfortably. Very uncomfortably. Read more.
Julie Klausner on what it was like to work with her:
After one of Joan’s stand-up shows at the Laurie Beechman, I took my parents backstage to meet her. After Joan was nice enough to tell them how proud they should be of me for writing those incredible Mackenzie Phillips incest jokes, my mother complimented her glittery watch (QVC, natch), which Joan promptly removed and forced us to take home. She loved giving gifts to everyone in her orbit; she would never permit anyone around her to be deprived of anything. I remember seeing Joan lock eyes with the cleaning lady working a shift in her office one evening. She made sure that woman went home with as many handbags as she could carry. Read more.
Vulture’s Collection of the 50 Best Joan Rivers Jokes:
I have no sex appeal. If my husband didn’t toss and turn, we’d never have had the kid.
The first time I see a jogger smiling, I’ll consider it.
Stevie Wonder, that poor son of a bitch. Who’s going to tell him he’s wearing a macramé plant holder on his head?
“I feel very lucky that I knew Joan Rivers and I feel very sad that she’s gone. She was a great comedian and a wonderful person. I never saw someone attack a stage with so much energy. She was a controlled lightning bolt. She was a prolific and unpredictable, joyful joke writer. She loved comedy. She loved the audience. She was a great actress and should have done that more. She loved living and working. She was kind. She was real. She was brave. She was funny and you just wanted to be around her. I looked up to her. I learned from her. I loved her. I liked her. And I already miss her very much. It really f—ing sucks that she had to die all of a sudden.”
Rivers’ interview with Criticwire’s Sam Adams for The A.V. Club:
AVC: Some of the funniest jokes in the film are when you’re talking about trying to get out there more often, and not getting the bookings you want.JR: Again, if it’s a fact of life and you laugh about it, it’s okay. Everything is okay if you laugh about it. And that’s a great weapon. That’s a cliché, but clichés come out of truth. The glass is always half-empty for me, because I say it’s filled with poison. Even now, as everyone is adoring this movie and loving this movie, I keep saying to Ricki, “Yeah, but we’ll see, well see.” But I’m also not stupid. I’m delighted and savoring the moment, too.
Celebrities React on Twitter:
RIP the mighty Joan Rivers. Funny & fearless. Truly one of a kind.
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) September 4, 2014
Watching Joan Rivers do standup at age 81 was incredible: athletic, jaw-dropping, terrifying, essential. It never stopped. Neither will she.
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) September 4, 2014
Did not want it to happen this way or this soon, but I am ready to step into Joan Rivers’ shoes.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) September 4, 2014
— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) September 4, 2014
We will miss you @Joan_Rivers. What you did in your life was absolutely remarkable. Your rep for kindness to everyone was completely true
— Joel McHale (@joelmchale) September 4, 2014
Goodbye, Joan. You deserved a louder death. #RIPJoanRivers
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) September 4, 2014
I always liked Joan Rivers in a general way. But when I saw her do standup in a small club I was truly blown away. Force of nature. RIP.
— David Wain (@davidwain) September 4, 2014
My friend Joan Rivers has passed away once again to quote Billy Crystal… There are no words. Bon Voyage Joan ��
— Whoopi Goldberg (@WhoopiGoldberg) September 4, 2014
From Vulture’s 9 Great Joan Rivers Moments (a scene from “A Piece of Work”):