Joan Rivers as Yoda
I've always had a soft spot for Joan Rivers. Once, as a student at Barnard, (BC '98), Rivers's Alma Mater, I was highlighted by a Barnard publication for my work as a comedian, and was noted to be "the next Joan Rivers." Erroneously, this allowed me to believe that we were secret best friends, and that if ever I was to meet Joan -I would say "Hello, I am the next You; we are best friends, yes?" Also erroneous is the claim itself - there is no "Next Joan Rivers" - she is irreplaceable (nor do I come close). You may be saying at this point: "I am confused. I thought that Joan Rivers was just an old comedian with a funny face?" How wrong you are...
To most people in my generation, Joan Rivers is a washed-up comedian known for her longtime stint as the red-carpet maven on the E! Network, and her face-altering plastic surgery. However, to those in the know, she offers a valuable lesson in strength, endurance, humor, and pride.
In this week's New York Times Magazine, there is a candid interview with Rivers which brings to the forefront many of the issues that the Jewish Women's Archive highlights in our film, Making Trouble, about three generations of funny Jewish women. In the film, Rivers tells the story of her career which she has fought for (and earned) tooth and nail. After making it big on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, her career as a trailblazing comedian -- whose self-mocking comedy about her own flaws was revolutionary -- flourished until 1987 when her husband committed suicide. Rivers's loss of contracts and gigs was so damaging that she went back to the basics of performing in clubs. My generation got to know her at that point when she became a red-carpet correspondent on E!, a job she took because, as she says in Making Trouble, "I'll do anything." Since then, she's worked in numerous venues, and this year at seventy-five, she's still doing a one-person show, and performing her own work night after night. Rivers has written books, hosted shows, you name it - she probably invented the internet as well.
Forty-three years after her appearance on the Tonight Show, she's still here, as we see in the Times, quipping on everything from Obama's ears, to the Bernie Madoff scandal (about which she says "I'm pleading with you, please say ‘She lost a bundle with Bernie Madoff,' ") Though we critique Rivers for her astonishing plastic surgery, and work on the red carpet, what we fail to acknowledge is the thing itself - she's still working, and she's honest about everything. Rivers has had a successful career in the public eye for longer than I've been alive, with no signs of stopping. For that she deserves our respect, and admiration.
I had the opportunity to meet Rivers last year, when Making Trouble was playing at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Luckily, I did not say what I had planned on saying for years about our secret BFF-ness. Instead, with all the courtesy owed to somebody whose enduring career, and self-deprecating honesty have paved the way for so many women comics, I said: "It's lovely to meet you." And it was.