Joan Rivers: Angry, Smart and a Remarkable Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: Angry, Smart and a Remarkable Piece of Work
Joan Rivers
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty

09/05/2014 AT 01:00 PM EDT

Many years ago I had the odd privilege of hearing a voicemail that Joan Rivers left on a colleague's phone. Ms. Rivers, calling in from a radio studio, was not happy with a review my colleague had written of one of her books.

She expressed this displeasure with a blue streak of such undiluted intensity it was practically azure.

The thing, though, was that by the end of the call, she was starting to laugh. She was enjoying the improvising and the craft that went into embroidering her obscenities. She was on a roll. She was having fun.

I believe she then ended the call in a pretty good mood.

Joan Rivers was 81 when she died this week. Her age, the longevity of her career (more than half a century), the fact that she had established, occasionally lost, yet ultimately (even triumphantly) sustained her reputation as the country’s premier female standup comedian – these all had placed her securely within bounds of being declared a national treasure.

Except Joan Rivers did not behave like anyone's treasure.

She was vulgar to the point of shocking (and that's not so easy anymore), she was impudent and she insulted fellow celebrities (admit it – you had begun to feel sorry for Kim Kardashian). She was only too glad to discuss her disgust with her aging body ("I can use my left breast as a stopper in the tub") while also joking about the incongruous, unlined pixie face that she achieved and preserved with plastic surgery.

Yet she never stopped buzzing and humming with her excitement for performing for anyone, anywhere. She was so happy to be rewarded with a laugh, so boundingly, eagerly on, that she had a kind of joy.

Joan Rivers was joyful.

Even if, she admitted, at the bottom of it all was rage: "I was probably angry the day I was born, you know, about diapers or something." Even if she whirled around with the force of a tornado looking for the next small town to demolish.

Rivers was incredibly funny, with a voice so original and unmistakable in its hectoring, exasperated energy you hear it in even her books.

This is from her latest best seller, Diary of a Mad Diva:

Something about Anne Frank's story kept bothering me and I finally figured out what. It's not that she wasn't pretty; a lot of girls aren't pretty and they still do okay, right, Avril Lavigne? But Anne just didn't try. How would it have hurt the woman who slipped her food when the Nazis weren't looking to have included a lipstick, an eye shadow and, God knows, a concealer? The girl had nothing but time on her hands. Would it have killed Anne to take a couple of minutes out of her 'busy' day and throw on a little blush?

And that's only the fourth entry. It's very Rivers – not just the putdown of Avril Lavigne, but the sarcastic quotes around "busy."

Much of Rivers's humor was, on the face of it, indefensible. There is no good reason to laugh at her joke about Adele's weight – the punchline is "Rolling in the Deep Fried Chicken" – especially when Rivers herself said she had been bulimic at one point.

There was nothing kind about how she would raise her fists, put one over each eye and then impersonate Jackie Onassis's eyes, which she said were so far apart that they swiveled independently, like an insect's.

And yet her best gags had a brash, blunt absurdity, as well as a lucidity in the way they were put together and delivered – staccato, relentless, but also measured out with both instinct and intelligence in how they flowed and escalated.

In recent years, her stint on the red carpet and E!'s Fashion Police may have made some people think of her chiefly as an "insult" comedian. But even the most casual stroll through YouTube shows a career of club appearances and talk-show visits (and hostings) that required far greater insight and skill than it took to, say, ridicule Jackie Chan (as she did on Police).

Over and over, you see the aggression, barely reined in, the delight in the aggression, the gratitude at scoring with a joke, and the combustive thrill she finds in all of these things.

It's an extraordinary performance, and somehow sustained with the same energy right up until her death.

She was endlessly testing new material, and endlessly storing it away for future use. In one moment in the excellent 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, she shows off an enormous catalog file of her jokes, and even pulls out one to read:

"Why should a woman cook? So her husband can say, 'My wife makes a delicious cake' to some hooker?"

And here is a gag that, given how often she used it or a variation, was either a killer or a solid joke to fall back on while en route to a killer: "I cremated my mother-in-law yesterday . . . and she didn't want to go."

To her credit, Rivers didn't pretend that she was exposing anything important about the world or society, other than that we all deserved an occasional drubbing for being, as she put it, "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

On the other hand, she seemed to realize that she had hit on at least one essential truth: The second wife always gets a bigger ring than the first.

Make 'Em Laugh: Joan Rivers's Best Lines


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