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Joan Rivers, 1933-2014 | reviews, news & interviews

Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

The first lady of comedy whose biggest dread was an empty diary

A first-class funny lady whose career was a hairy roller-coaster of ups and downs

Age could not wither her, or so it appeared. Joan Rivers has died, aged 81. On her 80th birthday she told an interviewer she’d be celebrating with her eightieth face. Her caustic humour could leave your nerves jangling, but she was the butt of it as often as anyone was. And in the field of cosmetic surgery you could almost call her a lone pioneer, of sorts, for what other American celebrity has ever been as candid about going under the knife? Nothing – not her face, nor her husband’s suicide in 1987, and certainly not the Holocaust or 9/11 – seemed to be off-limits for Rivers. 

Rivers was fearless, though that hardly seems the right word. Rather she seemed compulsively driven to say unsayable things, and naturally that was a big part of her comedy genius. You often found yourself cringing on her behalf, while half cheering her on. She stood up to that pious bullying bore Darcus Howe on Radio 4 – he was plugging a documentary, she some live appearances. Libby Purves suddenly felt she was hosting the wrong show – Oprah instead of Midweek.

Howe had claimed “Black offended her”, or, as he airily put it, “Black offends Joan”. She retaliated, and them some, and then demanded an apology for being called a racist. Howe eventually backed down, which must have been a first. No one else would have put the boot in with quite such ferocious aplomb (scroll down for audio). She was never going to play the apologetic liberal, that’s for sure, and you could tell Howe really wasn’t used to that. But then, Joan always owned the show. 

But fearless? In A Piece of Work, the excellent 2010 documentary about her life made by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, you saw the mask peeled off.  What was revealed seemed raw, almost tender to the touch. On stage she could make a joke in the worst possible taste about Helen Keller, then round on a man in the audience who takes offence because he’s the father of a deaf kid. Afterwards you see her hobbling out of the theatre, drained and stabbed by little pangs of guilt.

Watch that clip from A Piece of Work

The film follows Rivers at a low point in her career, accepting tough gigs in comedy cattle pens – those conveyor belt gigs featuring half a dozen or so largely unknown acts – and terrified by the blank pages in her diary. You then see her strike “TV gold” when she gets to be a contestant, in a double-act with her daughter Melissa, in Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. It’s tacky, but Rivers isn’t above any of that. She’s haunted by a terror of empty days. What else could she do with her days? Paint pictures? Who’s going to give a stuff about that? 

The film shows a tender and loving side – particularly with her young grandson and, somewhat implausibly, when she’s doing a meals-on-wheels charity run in her furs. Rivers found fame on the Johnny Carson show in the Sixties, and her career thereafter proved a hairy roller-coaster of ups and downs. She was a first-class funny lady – but if you're looking for sound views on the Middle East I'd go elsewhere.

Joan Rivers doing stand-up, 1982

Joan Rivers versus Darcus Howe on Midweek, 2005

Fisun Guner on Twitter

She seemed compulsively driven to say unsayable things, and naturally that was a big part of her comedy genius

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