Jul 3, 2014
On Joan Rivers
Trailblazer. What a word. Hold on. Let me amend that. What a bullshit word. It should be banned by all the style manuals and sent packing to the purgatory of corporate retirement speeches. “Old Ed here,” says the boss, gesturing with his wine glass, “sold more dictionaries than the rest of us. What a trailblazer.”
Icon, while we’re at it. Destroy that too. These are publicist words that reduce performers to dull historical figures and distance us from their actual place in culture. If you’re famous and live long enough and don’t go to jail, your final humiliation is that inevitable obituary… “An uncompromising trailblazer, an icon, the voice of a generation, who stood up to _____ and redefined _____ with the hard-won, selfless passion of a ______.”
That’ll be right in the first paragraph, and it only gets worse from there. Before long, the obituary will take a turn for the mystic, where eternal life is granted on some poetic technicality. “Joan Rivers’ voice, that shimmering and unapologetically artificial visage, that boundless energy, is right now beaming through space, and maybe someday the radio waves will bounce off of a distant star and her words will come back to us when we need them most, and we always need laughter in this mixed-up tangled world of ours. In this small but beautiful way, Joan Rivers, and our finest system of checks and balances on vanity, will never die.”
In the end, it’s all a rambling paraphrase of Edwin Stanton’s last word on Abraham Lincoln: now you belong to the ages.
And then we lose sight of who Joan Rivers, the working comedian, actually was. How could she be a working comedian and still have time for all that trailblazing? Getting gigs lined up and drawing crowds is a full-time job. Much harder than trailblazing.
Joan Rivers carved out a niche for herself in show business, which virtually nobody succeeds at doing, and she rode out that niche for her entire life, defining it with such force of will that she’ll never be replaceable. She is to red carpet interviews what Johnny Carson was to late night talk shows. Now that she’s dead, it’ll always be peculiar to see somebody else doing that job. “Wow, there are other people who think they can get away with this career path?”
And Joan Rivers had determination that borders on incomprehensible. There are always roadblocks for the working comedian so severe that it forces them to consider alternative careers in script punch-up or retail—calamities that make one go “alright, it didn’t work out, time to get a huge cup of coffee, rent a U-Haul, and get as far away from town as possible.” Joan Rivers had several such calamities. She got iced out by Johnny Carson and banned from The Tonight Show. Career-ender for anybody else. Her talk show on FOX got canceled. Career-ender. Her husband killed himself three months later. Career-ender. And each time she kept working.
She had a staying power that just isn’t in the celebrity playbook. She was always on the talk show circuit, always touring, always popping up wherever her niche permitted, and never paused over the imagined indignities of doing so. She was everywhere. QVC, YouTube, podcasts. If there was a talk show after Carson Daly at 3 a.m., where even watching television seems illegal, you can bet she’d do it. It takes a rock solid, unpretentious work ethic to do that.
So never mind the overwrought obits. The best thing there is to say about Joan Rivers, the working comedian, is she died with her boots on. Until today, if you googled her, you could see that she still had tour dates on her calendar. That’s not a bad way to go out.