In the world of New York comedy, there are very few people who loomed larger than Joan Rivers. She was so funny for so long, other comedians’ entire careers—in some cases, entire lives—began, flourished and ended during Joan’s decades-long span as the funniest woman in America. 1960s? She was being funny on Candid Camera and The Tonight Show alongside Johnny Carson. 1970s? She was appearing on The Carol Burnett Show and letting rip with killer quips on Hollywood Squares. 1980s? Rivers was everywhere, from hosting Saturday Night Live to voicing Dot Matrix in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs. 1990s? Writing and starring in the Tony-nominated play “Sally Marr…And Her Escorts,” after first winning a Daytime Emmy for her talk show, The Joan Rivers Show. 2000s? Reality TV, panel shows, acting and the occasional Royal wedding. She did everything.
There was seemingly no medium she couldn’t handle. As comfortable behind a typewriter as on a live TV show or movie set, her second book (it would be one of twelve) the Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz, became a bestseller. The aforementioned play—based on the life of Lenny Bruce’s mother, Sally—ran on Broadway for 50 performances. Modernity never phased her: Louis CK’s gently somber Louie may be a world away from the acid-drenched one-liners Joan hurled into the audience, but her single glorious guest appearance made for one of the most memorable episodes of the show so far. She was a comedy whirlwind.
She was also a trailblazer: As well as being the first woman ever to have her own talk show (1986’s The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers) she was also the first ever female comic to perform at Carnegie Hall.
And she never slowed down—she released a new book, Diary Of A Mad Diva, just this year, which she toured relentlessly to promote, including a run at the Laurie Beechman theater here in New York, where I was lucky enough to catch her on July 3rd, just two months before her death. She was incredible. She spat venom at everyone: Every celebrity, every race, every religion, and most especially at herself, her favorite target. At 81 years of age, she charged (tottered, really, in her high heels and slinky dress) back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, acting out a joke about a polar bear being separated from its cub on a disintegrating iceberg, her energy apparently limitless. (I have no idea what the punch line was to that joke—I don’t think anyone does, they were all laughing too hard at the performance.) She just didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of her: Unwilling to rely on her memory, her entire set was written down on enormous cue cards taped to the stage. We could all see them, and she knew: She didn’t care. She stalked back and forth over the notes—about 20 square feet of them— standing still at times to remind her that the next bit of the set was scrawled in magic marker between her feet. No comic in the world could have pulled that off except Joan Rivers.
Photo by REX USA
And now, tragically, she’s gone, having passed away today after complications following throat surgery, and the world—and particularly, New York—is a much, much sadder place for it. Joan Rivers forged a path for women in comedy at a time when girls were just supposed to be sidekicks, but all the men she went up against knew the same thing—she had more balls than the rest of them put together.