“Can we talk?” That was the famous catchphrase of legendary comedian Joan Rivers, who passed away on Sept. 4 following complications from a minor medical procedure. The raspy-voiced New Yorker was best known early in her career for her often self-deprecating humor, and later humor that evolved into abrasive celebrity bashing; ridiculing the famous with a vicious wit that showed little mercy.
I was mildly familiar with Rivers. I recall hearing her joke about her late husband’s suicide, not understanding what could be even remotely funny about such a tragic event. Her brand of humor, which seemed cruel to me, did not make me a fan. What was it about this octogenarian “mean girl” who in death seemed to captivate the nation and beyond? Why, in these politically correct times, were all these accolades being thrust upon the woman who once said when referring to the 2013 inauguration of President Barack Obama, “If I want to see millions of smiling black people, I’ll set up a camera in the hallway outside Kim Kardashian’s bedroom!”
I wondered why this comedienne, at 81 years old, was now trending on Twitter. I did a bit of research to see what others may have recognized in this woman that I failed to see. Why were adjectives such as “legendary” and “iconic” being used to describe a woman who built a career on mocking and ridiculing celebrities and their vulnerabilities? Some of her most controversial comments include: “I was just reading about the new Lindsay Lohan diet, which is all liquid. 80 proof,” (referring to Adele) “What’s her song, ‘Rolling in the Deep’? She should add fried chicken,” and (referring to the daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West), “That baby is ugly … I’ve never seen a six-month-old so desperately in need of a waxing.”
The Barnard graduate grew up as the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. An initial dream of becoming a serious actress detoured when she realized her unremarkable appearance and ability to make people laugh might make her better suited for comedy. With contemporaries like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, she was a pioneer in the world of female caustic comics, paving the way for the likes of Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler. Her big break came in 1965 when she caught the eye of former “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson. She would go on to become the only regular replacement host for Carson in the 1980s. An offer to host her own late-night talk show caused Carson to shun her. She often cited the failure of her talk show, canceled after less than one year, and her rift with Carson as contributing factors to the depression that led to her husband’s 1987 suicide.
Following a career slump, Rivers reinvented herself, most notably on the red carpet dishing and dissing fashion with her daughter Melissa, and most recently as a host of the E! show “Fashion Police.”
Despite her caustic and often cruel observations, Rivers was a beloved figure. While many, including myself and Jennifer Lawrence, who stated that Rivers’ “Fashion Police” teaches young people “that it’s OK to point at people and call them ugly and call them fat” may have been offended by her brand of humor, one can only imagine that River’s response would be her other famous catch phrase, “Oh, grow up!”