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Farewell, Joan Rivers: The Indomitable Comedian Made Fun, Above All, Of Herself

Renee Graham: "With Rivers, life, no matter how harsh, cruel or unyielding, was meant to be a punchline." Pictured: Joan Rivers performs at the MGM in Las Vegas, Nev., on Aug. 13, 1975. The raucous, acid-tongued comedian died Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. She was 81. Rivers was hospitalized Aug. 28, after going into cardiac arrest at a doctor's office. (Las Vegas News Bureau/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Renee Graham: "With Rivers, life, no matter how harsh, cruel or unyielding, was meant to be a punchline." Pictured: Joan Rivers performs at the MGM in Las Vegas, Nev., on Aug. 13, 1975. The raucous, acid-tongued comedian died Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. She was 81. Rivers was hospitalized Aug. 28, after going into cardiac arrest at a doctor's office. (Las Vegas News Bureau/AP)

Joan Rivers may be dead, but at least she died doing something she loved — having surgery.

Oh, grow up!

That’s what Rivers, with one of her signature lines, would have said, even if she would have delivered that quip with enough acid and vinegar to make a stone wince. One could make that joke, and others too ribald to repeat here, because the legendary comedian, who died yesterday at 81, never thought it was too soon to make a joke or to poke fun at situations others found too sacrosanct. Whether it was Sept. 11, Alzheimer’s or even her husband’s suicide, absolutely nothing was off-limits to Rivers, who seemed to revel in her ability to infuriate. It was a career lived without caution or a delete button, and watching Rivers take on any topic could be equally thrilling and terrifying, because you knew she’d make a beeline for that tripwire every time.

In a career that began during television’s grainy black-and-white Golden Age, Rivers earned attention as a woman willing to swing as high and hard as her male contemporaries. For the most part, Rivers outlasted them all.

In a career that began during television’s grainy black-and-white Golden Age, Rivers earned attention as a woman willing to swing as high and hard as her male contemporaries. For the most part, Rivers outlasted them all. (All things being fair, the great Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a too-often forgotten comic innovator, was booking gigs at Carnegie Hall years before Rivers finally found national prominence on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson; while Rivers was a pioneer, she certainly wasn’t the first.)

That she stayed as prominent for today’s fans of the E! network and her celebrity-lacerating show, “Fashion Police,” as she was to those who remember her routines on the long-ago Sunday night staple, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” speaks not only to her longevity, but to her ability to stay relevant even as her audiences changed.

Rivers died in New York, the city of her birth. The abrasiveness that is every native New Yorker’s birthright always stayed with her. A doctor’s daughter, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an English degree from Barnard College, but despite her parents’ disapproval, she wanted to be an actress. Without their financial support, she struggled but found small acting roles off Broadway, and only turned to stand-up comedy to make money. She never made it as an actress, but had a natural talent with a microphone, an audience and jokes plumbed from her own life.

She joked about her looks, her figure and her marriage. In later years, she talked openly, and often hilariously, about her many plastic surgeries, when most similarly-altered public figures would rather perish than admit to even a shot of Botox. Rivers, meanwhile, had so many surgeries on her face, she looked like she’d escaped from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Rare was the joke to be made about Rivers that she hadn’t already made herself.

And maybe that was the key to what seemed a raging id willing to say aloud what most people could barely utter even within a close circle of friends. Rivers understood that once you can laugh at yourself, it’s much easier to laugh at everyone and everything else. In many comedians, there’s a desperation to be loved and accepted, but also something feral that threatens annihilation if they don’t get the adoration they believe they deserve. It was there in Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and certainly in Rivers who, especially in her later years, seemed to prefer to hit below the belt to get a laugh. (And unlike Pryor and Williams, Rivers was never tamed and made cuddly by Hollywood.)

She joked about her looks, her figure and her marriage. In later years, she talked openly, and often hilariously, about her many plastic surgeries... Rare was the joke to be made about Rivers that she hadn’t already made herself.

Everything in life was fodder, and if you were offended, well, that was your problem. This is not to say that Rivers didn’t, at times, go too far. Earlier this year, when she said that two of the women held hostage for years in a Cleveland house shouldn’t complain about their imprisonment because "They got to live rent-free for more than a decade," the survivors called Rivers’ comments “hurtful.” Rivers’s response: “Lighten up.” In July, she joked about President Obama’s sexual orientation and used a slur to imply that Michelle Obama was transgender. Many were offended, but Rivers had even less patience for apologizing than she had for self-censorship.

In a time when social media encourages shocking comments, Rivers’s barbed one-liners stung longer and were, if you had the stomach for it, funnier. She could come across like the Mother of all Twitter trolls, desperate for any kind of attention, even if negative, except that Rivers had no use for anonymity. What was the point of saying something outrageous if no one knew it came from you?

Rivers could be as mean as she was funny, but if she was only mean, her career would have stalled decades ago. No legend trapped in amber, she remained intriguing because we love a survivor’s story, and she had endured personal heartbreak and professional hiccups, and somehow remained current. And at her best, she was a riot. With Rivers, life, no matter how harsh, cruel or unyielding, was meant to be a punchline.


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Renee Graham Twitter Contributor
Renee Graham is pop culture correspondent for WBUR’s Here & Now and The ARTery, and was a longtime arts writer and pop culture columnist for The Boston Globe.

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