by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Icon. That's the word you will see time and time again associated with the legendary Joan Rivers, dead at 81, on Thursday. She was an icon of comedy. She was most certainly a Gay icon. And nobody can deny Joan was a fashion icon. Joan Rivers was a no-holds-barred comic who found humor in subjects you aren't supposed to talk about at the dinner table and now, for the first time since her career launched in the 1950s, silence has filled the air and the world just got a little less funny. Joan Rivers is gone.
I, like most Gay boys of the 1980s, grew up with the knowledge that every now and then Johnny Carson would be absent from 'The Tonight Show' and this loud-mouthed crazy lady would sit-in for him. Well, that is the way my five-year-old mind registered Joan Rivers anyway. In fact, I used to get her and another icon of comedy that passed away in 2012, Phyllis Diller, mixed up. However, right about the same time I discovered Bette Midler, Cher, and the rest of the mandatory Diva's that every Gay man loves without question, I most certainly knew the difference between Diller and Rivers. Joan Rivers, as far as I was concerned, was the funniest woman on the planet. And even later still - past my teens and twenties - I began to see her as something totally different, but oh-so-obvious: Joan Rivers was an activist.
She was an activist later in life quite by accident. In recent years Joan Rivers was attacked again and again for telling jokes about the topics she had been telling jokes about for decades - like race, gender, sex, and the like. Apparently, somewhere along the way, America has lost its collective sense of humor. People lashed out at her, calling her a racist, and a this or a that and ... oh who cares anyway? Joan certainly didn't. Instead, she did exactly what her fans knew and loved her for - she told more jokes about those same topics and ranted from the stage, in front of television cameras and in books and newspaper articles about how many of the offended masses needed to take the sticks out of their asses and get a grip. Comedy pushes boundaries and nobody pushed boundaries quit like Joan Rivers. And if you think that is offensive, well, as the old saying should go, if the stick fits ...
Take for instance this classic Joan Rivers rant to TMZ less than one year ago in November 2013 defending actor Alec Baldwin after his MSNBC talk show was canceled in light of the controversy surrounding his alleged use of a homophobic slur:
'Everybody just relax,' Rivers said to the camera, before dropping a string of racial epithets directed at every race and sexuality.
'Everybody is either a wop, a nigger, a kike, a chink...,' she began, not stopping until she hit every ethnic group.
She closed by telling people they should be glad we live in America and to 'stop being so uptight.'
'And this [message] goes for the Indians, both dot and feather,' she concluded.
And with that, she walked off camera and into the headlines where, try as they might, people who so clearly could not see that Joan Rivers was pointing out a whole bunch of truth, began their latest assault.
It was over in, literally, days. Why? Because Joan Rivers was no fool; nor was she a racist or homophobe. She stated the 'what you would think would be the obvious' and as ugly as that truth may have been - it still does not change the fact that it is a rant - just like many of the others that came from her mouth to our ears - that is undeniably true. It just so happens that in 2013 saying the word 'faggot' could get you in trouble. Alec Baldwin learned the hard way then, but had he said the same thing just five years earlier nobody would've said peep. What society deems as acceptable language changes, and Joan Rivers knew that and she messed with that, and I think it made a lot of people who were actually angry at the issue become angry with her in a confusion of where to project their activism or desire for change. But Joan had skin that was as thick as anyone could ever hope for in show business and so the personal insults, threats, and ill-wishes hurled at her simply bounced off and that was that. She was tough as nails and resilient ... and extremely rich. It is estimated that at the time of her death, Joan Rivers' net worth is over $150 million.
Joan Rivers launched her career as both an actress and a stand-up comedian in the 1950s during a time when female standup acts were rare. Rivers counted Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield and other then-rising male comics as being part of the group of comedians she came up with.
'But I never was one of the guys,' she told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012. 'I was never asked to go hang out; I never thought about it until later. ... Even though I was with them, I wasn't with them.'
The men all found fame before her. 'I was the last one in the group to break through, or to be allowed to break through. Looking back, I think it was because I was a woman,' she said.
Although Joan Rivers never set out to become the breakthrough female comedian that would pave the way for all of the women comedians after her, that is exactly what ended up happening.
Who could ever forget her classic question, 'Can we talk?'
By the mid-1960s she became a writer for TV programs and then took on a role any entertainer can find difficult: talk show host.
Only Joan Rivers sailed where others would sink. After a short stint on her own daytime talk show, called 'That Show,' the woman who had become a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show' transitioned to late-night host - well, guest host at first.
Johnny Carson mentored Rivers and she remained Carson's go-to replacement act, under contract, until the two had a falling out after she transitioned to her own late-night program in 1986, which led to her 26-year absence from 'The Tonight Show,' recently lifted by the current host, Jimmy Fallon.
But Rivers had pissed off the wrong man in Hollywood and, as she explains, they came at her with everything they could. Nobody could've survived the onslaught. 'I'd lost my Vegas contracts, I'd been fired from Fox,' she told the Daily Beast last month. 'Carson and NBC had put out such bad publicity about me. I was a pariah. I wasn't invited anywhere. I was a non-person.'
Seven months after launching 'The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,' she was out of a job.
According to Joan, she actually contemplated suicide; which is particularly poignant because Rivers' second husband, Edgar Rosenberg, the father of her only child, her daughter, Melissa, committed suicide the same year she was fired from the show.
In the interview Joan admits that her dog saved her life. 'My dog jumped into my lap. I thought, 'No one will take care of him.' ... I had the gun in my lap, and the dog sat on the gun. I lecture on suicide because things turn around. I tell people this is a horrible, awful dark moment, but it will change and you must know it's going to change and you push forward. I look back and think, 'Life is great, life goes on. It changes.'
Day Time Talk & Fashion a Hit for Joan (and Melissa) Rivers
In 1989, Joan Rivers launched a daytime talk show, 'The Joan Rivers Show,' for which she won an Outstanding Talk Show Host Emmy. Audiences just couldn't get enough of her during the daytime programming, which was a direct contrast to her brand of comedy - or so networks thought anyway. It seems that all of those stay-at-home soccer moms felt as though Joan was simply saying the things they wanted to say all along.
A few years later, she and Melissa began doing awards show coverage for E!, the same network that launched 'Fashion Police' in 2010. In 2011, Rivers and her daughter landed their own reality TV show for WE tv, 'Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?' which documented the most intimate moments of their lives, including Rivers going in for plastic surgery.
Also in 2011, the comedian appeared on the series 'Louie' alongside Louis C.K.
In addition, Joan Rivers authored 12 books.
No matter the odds, she never stopped working. Local drag icon Gaysha Starr and I got to see Joan Rivers perform at the Snoqualmie Casino Ballroom on February 12, 2011. In her review of the show for the Seattle Gay News, Gaysha Starr talked about how Joan Rivers felt about retiring:
'At the closing of her act, during a standing ovation, she went on each side of the stage and started to toss off the potted flowers and plants to the front row, and then went offstage to change into a black duster complete with hot pink lining and a mink collar,' wrote Gaysha Starr in the February 18, 2011 edition of SGN. 'During her curtain call, the last dig she shared with the audience was an earlier phone conversation with Cher that included Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, and their daughter, Suri. When Rivers asked the iconic legend when she was going to retire, Cher replied 'We're performers! We don't retire! We perform!'
A sentiment Rivers repeated to The Daily Beast, saying, however, that she thought about death 'constantly.' She said she wanted to be cremated and told Melissa, 'Sell anything and everything you don't want. Don't feel beholden to my possessions.'
Rivers also thought about what legacy she wanted to leave her only grandson, Cooper, which she told Grandparents.com was, 'Success comes through work.'
Gaysha Starr and I got the chance to meet Joan Rivers, the iconic comedian that in my childhood I had once confused with Phyllis Diller, and she was as gracious as could be. The line to meet her was too long (the show's promoter had given access to a number of fans far greater than her people had authorized) and she did not complain once. Instead, she shook everyone's hand, signed autographs, posed for photos and joked that the backstage was in the Casino's kitchen. Pure class.
Some people found Joan Rivers to be insensitive, offensive and rude. She was. She was all of those things. Only, she was all of those things as a shock comedian, which has its place in the world.
'What pleasure you feel when you've kept people happy for an hour and a half. They've forgotten their troubles. It's great. There's nothing like it in the world,' she once wrote. 'When everybody's laughing, it's a party.'
Joan Suffers Cardiac Arrest
On August 28, Joan Rivers was in New York City having surgery when she suffered cardiac arrest. She was rushed to the hospital, where she arrived unconscious and doctors kept her sedated. On September 2, her daughter revealed that she had been placed on life support.
'My mother has been moved out of intensive care and into a private room where she is being kept comfortable,' she added in a statement the next day. 'Thank you for your continued support.'
And then, on September 4, 'It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers,' Melissa Rivers said in a written statement. 'She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided for my mother.'
Melissa Rivers added that she and her son, Cooper, 'have found ourselves humbled by the outpouring of love, support and prayers we have received from around the world. They have been heard and appreciated. My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.'
You know, I'm not the type of person that believes in Heaven or Hell, but it is a nice thought to think of, somewhere, somehow, right now, Joan Rivers meeting Johnny Carson, looking him straight in the eye and saying, 'Can we talk?' To which Johnny replies, 'Yes.'
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