Yesterday, the world lost one of THE most daring and fearless stand-up comedians we have ever known, male or female. Joan Rivers was a special kind of icon. She is one of the greats, up there with Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Being fearless in this world is not common. But Rivers plowed through this fearful world and the brutal male-dominated entertainment business like a warrior. At a time when most women were funny behind closed doors, tittering in the kitchen among other women away from the men, Rivers broke that barrier and became the funny woman for all of us to look up to in the public eye. She surveyed the men surrounding her and took her place among them, never taking “no” for an answer. Rivers thrived in this business because she didn’t rest for a second, she didn’t allow people to tell her she wasn’t funny because she knew she was funny. It was simply a fact. Funny is funny, male or female.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Marie Wilson of the White House Project has said. And as a young girl desperate to make the world laugh, I not only saw Joan Rivers, I heard the hell out of her. I first came to know the Daytime Emmy-winner iteration of Joan. Watching her successful talk show with my best friend, we would perfect our Joan Rivers impersonations: the best, gritty, raspy Brooklyn accent you ever heard coming out of two 10-year-olds. We were the class clowns, doing Joan Rivers for the whole 5th grade glass. Two girls, acting like assholes! And we weren’t mocking Rivers, per se — we loved her. She made fun of people, we made fun of her. She was a blazer-wearing, huge coiff-bearing, loud, older woman who was really freaking cool.
It was her voice that I first fell in love with, the fire-breathing way she talked that got me hooked. You could hear two words from that accented rasp and know instantly who it was. I’ve always been drawn to the fast-talking loud gals with an edge. The energy! The whipsmart wit! “Polite” women bored me; I was going to be a loud funny woman one day, too. Now I do work as one; I love to make people laugh easily, and I work hard, along with thousands of other women who were undeniably influenced by Joan Rivers’ career. She taught us girls to keep going, to keep talking even if your opinion is wildly unpopular. Be funny, be smart, keep going. She showed us how it’s done and that our genitals don’t make one bit of difference when it comes to humor.
In 2014, the “female” vs. “male” humor debates are a vestige of the past as we move along to bigger and brighter territory. Sure, there is still sexism in comedy. But there is no denying that women are appearing in giant droves in the comedy scene. Joan Rivers didn’t have that luxury; she had some peers like Carol Burnett and later on Roseanne Barr, but she didn’t have an army like we do now. Her stint as guest host with Johnny Carson ended in shambles, with Carson banishing Rivers after she received her own late night contract with Fox in a competing slot. The contract ended up falling through after a year, causing her husband Edgar to commit suicide from humiliation. But one man’s ego and a big corporation’s skittishness at their first female late night host wouldn’t keep her from succeeding. This kind of blow would kill even the strongest performer, but it could never kill Joan Rivers. She was a fighter. Sometimes an asshole, but ALWAYS a fighter.
In 2010 Roger Ebert reviewed her autobiographical documentary “Piece of Work” — a somewhat devastating look at the often unforgiving world that Joan tirelessly navigated through to remain relevant in her later years. Ebert says in his review: “She remains one of the funniest, dirtiest, most daring and transgressive of stand-up comics, and she hasn’t missed a beat.” Feminists and comedians alike are always met with contention as the voices that make people nervous. We say what we think, we often say what EVERYONE is thinking, and we dare to say it because we think it should be said.
Joan Rivers could be an asshole, but I bet if she was a man no one would say that she was one. Sometimes us women need be assholes, sometimes we need to be mean, to be angry; it usually just means that we are going after what we want. One of my favorite jokes of hers is: “Why should I cook for my husband? So he can tell a hooker I make a delicious cake?” This kills me. It skewers cheating men while breaking women out of the kitchen. IN TWO LINES she does this! Now that is genius. (Note: the use of the word “hookers” isn’t disparaging sex workers, and she wrote this in the old days anyway, so let’s give her a pass, okay? It’s funny.)
Joan Rivers’ life was an enormous life. She gave so much to all of us women who want to make the world a funnier place. She was our comedy pioneer, and she showed us by yelling and not giving a fuck the whole way there. She showed women that it’s okay to be an asshole if you want, and that feminism is all about equal opportunities and choices for everyone regardless of gender.
Hey, Joan, I wrote this joke for you about an hour after you died yesterday:
“They won’t even have to embalm Joan. Her face will be stuck like that forever!”
I think you would approve and DEFINITELY laugh.
Katrin Higher is a standup comedian in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.