Joan Rivers once said that if you don’t laugh, life is tough. I’m not sure whether this came before or after she quipped that she’s had so much plastic surgery in life, she planned to donate her body to Tupperware when she died. But who cares.
A common thread among several of the greatest comedians of our time is the unapologetic and often relentless presence of death in their routines. Chalk it up to the textbook ideals that encompass comic relief, or consider it simply a great mind’s approach to life and what comes after, using one’s occupation as a portal to hash it out.
Joan Rivers was a complicated feminist. She tore down women with a brand of brutal snark that became endemic to her success. She also broke a stereotype — that only men could truly be funny — and forged a path paved with self-deprecating jokes for the women who followed. Without Rivers, it’s hard to determine whether Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer could now run the extensive circles they do around Hollywood with their witticisms.
There is something distinct to be said about Joan Rivers as a proof of concept — that women can have it all: a sense of humor that is informed only by the limits of the mouth, prosperity contingent on it and a strong enough support system to keep going — and the sense of invincibility that checking off the criterion propels. Rivers could be crass, rude, hugely insensitive and brazen. She didn’t seem to care at all where popular opinion of her laid. She was honest for better or worse.
But when I was asked to appear on Fashion Police alongside The Great Joan two years ago almost to date, I also learned that she was kind. That she stood firmly by her ideals and took care of the people around her — those who needed her and those who didn’t know they needed her. She said she hated my jeans, I told her I hated her sweater. Together we laughed.
And that’s kind of when it clicked, you know? That perhaps all this time she hadn’t just been tearing women down, but boosting their social immune systems. Getting them ready for the bullshit that emerges as it does with escalating age, depleting heartbreak, rejection and the residual turmoil that manifests as a result, hoping that with the right state of mind, a solid layer of tough enough skin, and the ability to dish it back, we could all just…laugh.
Image from the set of The Muppets Take Manhattan