Wow. 2014 has absolutely been terrible for losing comedic icons. Harold Ramis, Robin Williams, and now the inimitable Joan Rivers have all left us this year. You might ask yourself why a blog dedicated to political material would stop and pause for a moment of reflection about comedians passing on, but I suspect that might be because you haven’t been around this blog all that much. I don’t know why sometimes, but I consider myself a comedian first and foremost, and losing people who were both inspiring and pioneering in the art form is always going to elicit a response from me.
For Joan Rivers, it strikes me that she was the quintessential female rebel. In a world that is unfairly and rather quizzically dominated by men, she not only had the balls — so to speak — to get out on stage, she did it with biting sarcasm, wit and criticism that no one was free from, most notably herself. I know that among fellow progressives she was a bit of an enigma. She would make weirdly transphobic or even homophobic jokes, but was also genuinely loved by, and was a supporter of many pro-LGBT causes. She was a fierce voice in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and for me anyway I never got the sense that her jokes were meant to further promulgate the subjugation of LGBT people, but rather to highlight the fact that we all are allowed to laugh at ourselves, and that doing so allows you to not take everything — even yourself — so seriously that you lose the joy in life.
I get it though, when you make your living saying things that people might find too edgy, too mean, too whatever, then you’re going to attract the scorn and derision of a lot of people. If I were a member of the LGBT community would I be offended by her joke about Michelle Obama being a “tranny?” Of course I would. But being offended by or not liking one or even a hundred jokes doesn’t take away from Rivers’ overall brilliance and her dedication to a craft that is so vital in society. And the simple fact is that she, along with her contemporaries like Phyllis Diller and Betty White, opened up door after door after door for female comics, and that’s why people like Sarah Silverman are broken up by her death.
— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) September 4, 2014
It’s easy to understand why someone like Silverman — an edgy, smart, witty, urbane and fearless female comedian in her own right — would love Joan’s work. Rivers was truly deserving of the “pioneer” moniker she got, and stupid comments about various subjects notwithstanding, she still made the lion share of her jokes about things we should laugh about. Like getting older, losing loved ones, and generally everything about life that tends to really suck.
I won’t ever “forgive” her for the idiotic comments she made about the Israeli shelling and ensuing massacre of Palestinians in Gaza this summer, though. Those were not comments made in the framework of jokes. They were just shitty, tone-deaf comments. I’ll simply chalk them up to her own cultural and religious biases. We all have them. I know I’m extra harsh on evangelical born-again Christians, because of my own personal history, and so God only knows how many I’ve offended and hurt with things I’ve said — in jest or not — about Christianity. We all make judgments of people. Well, that’s not true. I have a couple of amazing friends — Jaysen and Jason ironically — that don’t really judge anyone. I don’t know how they do it, but I’m pretty sure they’re robotic or something.
The bottom line is that people like Joan Rivers don’t come along every day. That’s not to say there aren’t millions of women just like Rivers out there. Of course they are. She clearly inspired a whole generation of women to get out on stage and be funny. But it takes real guts and determination to enter showbiz when she did and to not only stick it out for a handful of decades, but to go out still writing and performing comedy, making people laugh all the time. I don’t need my heroes to be perfect to be considered heroic in my eyes, they just need to be real, genuine and by and large good.
I did want to address one thing though. Some might argue that the difference between someone like Ann Coulter and Joan Rivers isn’t very deep. That’s a ridiculous notion. Ann Coulter’s whole premise in life is to say truly horrific and ignorant stuff about women, minorities, or generally anyone she doesn’t agree with ideologically in earnest. She’s serious about what she says, and everything that vomits forth from her mouth is to be taken as her own warped version of the truth. Joan Rivers may have dipped her toe into that pool when discussing Gaza, but she made fun of everyone. For laughs. And the world is forever indebted to her for that contribution.
It’s probably best and most fitting for me to end my tribute to this phenomenal woman with my favorite performance of hers in quite some time, appearing on a show created by one of true comedic heroes, Louis CK. Thank you, Ms. Rivers, you were everything you needed to be, and that’s all anyone can ask from someone else.