Critic’s Notebook:  Joan Rivers, an unstoppable comic force to the end

Just as we long suspected, the only thing that could stop Joan Rivers was death.

Abrasive, raunchy, self-immolating and often unapologetically offensive, Rivers changed comedy, courted controversy, survived catastrophe and refused to give up or give in, even when either of those might have seemed the best option.

Known best for her grating, New York-afflicted tones, penchant for plastic surgery and willingness to tell anyone that they looked terrible, Rivers created a kind of in-your-face, self-deprecation that both exploited the tendency toward self-hatred in comedy, particularly women’s comedy, and satirized it.

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If as she grew older Rivers developed a reputation for being more mean than funny — in recent months, she was criticized for, among other things, her remarks regarding Adele’s weight, Palestinians and the Holocaust — she remained true to the brassy image and take-no-prisoners attitude that allowed her to rise during a time when the term “female comedian” was almost an oxymoron.

Rivers famously wrote for Ed Sullivan and then Phyllis Diller, appeared on “The Tonight Show” when it was still hosted by Jack Paar, then became one of Johnny Carson’s guest hosts. Of the few remaining glittering links to television’s last golden age, she is the only one who managed to navigate the many changes in between. Talk shows, reality television, Twitter, webisodes, red carpet commentary — no job was too big or too small.

While the few remaining comedians of her generation retired, emerging only for special events, Rivers never stopped touring or taking chances. In addition to her own shows, she was a regular guest on talk shows, appeared as a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” (she won), guest-starred on “Louie” (she killed) and was the subject of the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” in which, in one segment, the then 75-year-old performed back-to-back shows in Toronto, Palm Springs and Minneapolis.

At the time of her death Rivers had a show on E! (“Fashion Police”), one on WeTV (“Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”), a third on the Web (“In Bed With Joan”), a recent bestselling memoir (“Diary of a Mad Diva”) and a fall tour slated for Britain.


The woman was 81. With a fall tour slated for Britain.

And if the many plastic surgeries and insistently platinum hair made her look at times like a fright, well (insert profanity here) you.

For latter-day boomers who remember the early work, Rivers was like the drunk mom at the party, the one who told the truth and scandalized the room. Back in the last century, Rivers may have made her name by trashing herself, but she also fearlessly called out men, sex, childbirth (she would awaken her young sleeping daughter to say, “Melissa, you ripped me to shreds”) and gynecology in general. Her remark that “when I need a pick-me-up, I put a little Fresca on a maxi-pad” makes me laugh to this day.

Joan Rivers was so fearless a comedian she even joked about her husband’s suicide.

The modern Joan was a more divisive figure. Many found her persona irritating, her comedy predictably mean-spirited, her remarks intentionally provocative. Even so, it was impossible not to admire the indefatigable spirit, the refusal to let anything soften or sag, including her very sharp tongue.

I remember seeing Rivers at the 2007 Oscars, dressing down an official who was attempting to turn her away from the red carpet because she wasn’t wearing her credentials.

“Oh, my God,” she said, with that deep hollow squawk that made her sound like a world-weary and chain-smoking parrot. “If I wasn’t who I [expletive] said I was, if I didn’t have to [expletive] be here, do you think I would [expletive] be here? In this [expletive] dress and this [expletive] heat? Move that [double expletive] rope.”

The man moved the rope.


Her death makes her appearance this year on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” even more poignant and important. Long a friend and acolyte of Johnny Carson, Rivers famously fell from favor in the 1980s when she took a job hosting a show on another network. Carson never spoke to her again and banned her from “The Tonight Show,” an edict both Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien obeyed.

She remained embroiled in controversy, of course, most recently with the writers of “Fashion Police” who turned to Rivers for support in their request to join the Writers Guild. Her refusal fueled yet another public feud.

But then Joan Rivers did not go gentle into any night, good or bad. She made some audiences laugh till they cried, and others fume with anger. She did what she did and then she did it some more.

“I wish I could tell you it gets better,” she says to a disheartened Louis C.K. in that very funny and revealing episode of “Louie.” “But it doesn’t get better. You get better. I’ve gone up, I’ve gone down, I’ve been bankrupt, I’ve been broke, but you do it. And we do it because we love it more than anything else.”

Overcome, Louie kisses her. Shocked, Rivers fights him off, then has a change of heart. “What the hell,” she says, motioning to the bedroom. “Just don’t tell anyone. I’m thinking of you, not me,” she adds. “No one likes a necrophiliac.”

Only one person in the world could land a joke like that. Only one person in the world would even attempt a joke like that.

And now she’s gone.