Joan Rivers: a woman filled with hate or humanity?
Joan Rivers: a woman of chutzpadik and chilarity. We either love her, or hate her. She’s either the talk of the town, or fades into red carpet oblivion . . . only to be resurrected again. This time, with even more plastic surgery. (Is it okay to make fun of a woman who has paved the way for practically every female comedian from the 1960s on? And to poke fun at something so superficial? Something that undoubtedly has bolstered her long career? I mean, come on, name me one successful woman comedian who sports grey hair, is over 50, and hasn’t had work done to either her face or her body.) We make fun of the things that make funny women palatable. How many male comedians are old, bent, or balding? It’s easy to make fun of and (for some) hate the strong, brassy, woman who openly tries. And who openly addresses the effort.
Recently, Joan Rivers promoted her published book I Hate Everyone . . . Starting With Me on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. I had the experience of reading the book first and then listening to the interview. For me, there was a surprising disconnect. The book wore me down. The repetition of the “I hate…” opener really hit a nerve. It’s like Jerry Seinfeld’s “What’s the deal with,” but toxic. Kristen Linklater, master teacher, vocal coach, and author of Freeing The Natural Voice, has said “The unconscious doesn’t know how to take a joke.” And so seeing the word “hate” on almost every page (in bold) took it’s toll. Granted, I’m sensitive; granted, I’m an artist. But I wonder if others who read this book, found the relentless repetition of the word “hate” and the negative gestalt to be, at the very least, tiresome.
But here’s the disconnect: when I hear Joan Rivers on NPR, or on the screen in Making Trouble, JWA’s film about funny Jewish women, or even on her reality show with her daughter, Melissa, she’s so damn good! And her story, her doggedness, her unapologetic anthem of honesty is so inspiring! She has revolutionized what women can do and say on stage, on screen, in print. In my world, she is a woman of valor.
There’s a wonderful moment in the NPR interview where she seems to be talking directly to me, about my struggle as an artist:
“In our business you do not quit . . . You're holding on to the ladder. When they cut off your hands, hold on with your elbow. When they cut off your arms, hold on with your teeth. You don't quit because you don't know where the next job is coming from.”
You go to the dictionary, you’ll see “Joan Rivers: noun. syn.: tenacity.” And right next to that, you’ll see a picture of a woman without arms or teeth.
Oh, Joan! How I wish I had an ounce of your gall, of your confidence! But sometimes what we see on the surface isn’t always what translates beneath:
Terry Gross asked if the confidence that Joan exhibits as a comic, performer, and writer carries over into her private life; without skipping a beat, Joan replies,
“No. And let me tell you, the confidence came in the last seven months . . . I'm 79 years old and about four years ago I said I don't give a damn anymore. I'm going to say what I want on stage. I'm going to just do what I want to do on stage . . . All the young comedians say: ‘You've broken the door down.’ And I want to say: ‘Sweetheart, look out, I will show you now what you do on stage.’ But that's the only place I'm confident. I can't pick a piece of fabric for my apartment. I don't know which shoe to put on.”
Ah, yes! She is human too, like the rest of us, like Swiss cheese, with holes in her confidence, in her convictions.
Joan confesses that she is not a deep person, that she doesn’t analyze. I beg to differ. Perhaps she doesn’t analyze in the typical sense, but I do assert that she has depth, and it is that depth, that humanity that makes her comedy work. She’s a woman with character. A lot of it. And what builds character? Suffering. Pain. (She is Jewish, remember). She has gone through a lot, this comedian: enduring the sexism and misogyny of the male comic world during the 60s and 70s; as well as the often, rampant “hate” or indifference of audiences when she performed in Greenwich Village and the Borsch Belt (nine out of ten audiences, she said, would metaphorically “spit in [her] face”); and most excruciating of all, in 1987 the suicide of her husband of 20 years. How do you return from that; return and make people laugh? How does that not deepen you as a person? She is, I believe, a 79-year-old “sad clown” (though her face, perhaps, not quite as elastic).
I just can’t find the humanity in her hate book the same way I can in the JWA movie, Making Trouble, and in the NPR interview. When Terry Gross asks Joan, in all seriousness, what it’s like to outlive friends and loved ones, Joan responds that at the end of each day she faces her living room and says good night to the people she has loved in her life who have passed. She continues:
“You can't bring back the ones you really loved and that is why, little Miss Sunshine, when I have a fight with a friend, I never—two negatives—I never do not make up with them. I make up with them immediately if I care for them. I will not let a day go by. Life is too short these days. How about that for a nice, serious, stupid note?"
She is outrageous, and she is cracked, and I find that combination absolutely exquisite, because as Leonard Cohen, referencing a famous Buddhist maxim, sings, “that’s how the light gets in.”
Rock on, Joan Rivers! Though I don’t love your new book about hate, I do love you and all that you’ve done for women comedians, women artists.
JWA tribe: What do you think of Joan Rivers? If you’ve read her new book, please weigh in, and tell me: is there something I’m missing?
This post is the first of five in a series on “Jewesses with Attitude”—Women Who Have Inspired Change.