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This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Joan Rivers is a force of nature. Her caustic voice, relentless energy and driving ambition remain formidable, while her flinty toughness has carried her through bruising career reverses and shocking personal tragedies. Joan is the queen of comebacks and a master of all media, having invaded every format from stand-up, theater, movies and books to talk shows, shopping channels, reality TV, radio and the web.
When I arrived on the public scene after the release of my first book in 1990, I was called “the academic Joan Rivers” — a title I loved. Yes, Joan influenced me profoundly. Watching her on TV, I learned so much about how to work a crowd or wake up groggy students in my morning classes. With her combative, rapid-fire style, Joan has shown generations of women how to command a stage and make it your own.
In her most recent book, I Hate Everyone… Starting With Me, Joan demonstrates her scathing rejection of humanitarian pieties and political platitudes. Unlike virtually all American comedians these days, she never preaches to the liberal choir for easy laughs. On the contrary, she goes against the grain and overtly offends and repels. She has endeared herself to free-thinking gay men by her pitiless attacks on political correctness. She cracks jokes about Nazis, mass murderers, the handicapped, the homeless, the elderly, starving children, racial minorities, stroke victims and even suicides (despite the suicide of her second husband, Edgar Rosenberg).
Joan’s relationship with the entertainment industry remains uneasy: In an era of soft celebrity journalism, she treats stars with an impish mockery that borders on cruelty, as when she dogged Elizabeth Taylor and Kirstie Alley about their weight. Her feuds (as with her former benefactor, Johnny Carson) are infamous. But ever since Greco-Roman times, true satire stings and bites. Joan is just as mean about herself, admitting her sexual inferiority complex and countless plastic surgeries (“I’ve undergone more reconstruction than Baghdad”).
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Westchester County, Joan Alexandra Molinsky graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College in 1954. She bounced around in minor advertising and fashion jobs until she discovered her vocation as a comic in Greenwich Village coffeehouses during the early 1960s.
After World War II, it was Jewish comedians — Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl — who transformed stand-up comedy into social commentary, a legacy of Jewish political activism in the unionization and civil rights movements. Before that, stand-up on the vaudeville circuit was just a string of harmless gags. Bruce also had a beatnik edginess, which he uncomfortably turned against the audience, as in avant-garde theater.
In the 1950s, the only woman daring to do stand-up was Phyllis Diller, who dressed like a clown in a fright wig to erase any hint of sex appeal but whose body language was as coolly contained as her mentor Bob Hope‘s. Joan Rivers, in contrast, took Lenny Bruce’s slouching, surly menace and converted it into a hyperkinetic prowling of the stage, from which she launched abrasive provocations. She lambasted the audience for its sentimentality or hypocrisy and insisted on comedy’s mission as a vehicle of harsh truths: “Please. Can we talk?”
What Joan represents is power of voice, which she developed for years before Betty Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women. Jewish-American women (including Friedan) already had a startling candor and audacity, producing the shrill ethnic stereotype of the “Jewish seagull.” Joan turned the seagull into a lioness. Although her self-deprecating acceptance of the iron law of female beauty initially put her at odds with the women’s movement, Joan must be recognized as an iconic feminist role model. Everything she says or does, even when following her killer instinct for marketing and publicity, is about personal empowerment and ferocious independence. Her work ethic alone is a constant inspiration.
That Joan Rivers is a comic genius is incontrovertible — even in her George Burns and Gracie Allen exchanges with her daughter, Melissa, who deftly plays the straight man. Joan has a better ear than most living poets for the spare, sinewy rhythms of modern English. Profane, irreverent and fearless, Joan Rivers is a legend in her own time.
Culture critic Paglia is a professor at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars.
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