Sunday, September 7, 2014

Quips and Quotations (Comediennes Edition)

Joan Rivers

Terribly sad news about Joan I watched her back in Bev hills at the ye little club where I started out she was one of the greats

--Sandra Bernhard

A legend, a friend, a mentor, an icon, and wildly funny. One of a kind. RIP

--Kathy Griffin

My heart is torn in half. She wasn't done.

--Sarah Silverman

She was fearless, but very supportive. Just a real trailblazer for female comics, and I just think all comics.

--Judy Tenuta

This is the first time in her life Joan Rivers ever had bad timing. She left way too soon.

--Elayne Boosler

like u, i was an ugly duckling. then you taught me to become a swan. and we'd laugh, because finally, we were swans together.

--Margaret Cho

Joan Rivers will always be a pioneer. She paved the way for a lot of comedians. I’m very sad she’s gone.

--Ellen DeGeneres

My friend Joan Rivers has passed away once again to quote Billy Crystal... There are no words. Bon Voyage Joan.

--Whoopi Goldberg

Sad news. I'll miss her presence in the world. I admired Joan Rivers tremendously. All female comedians owe her a huge debt of gratitude

--Rita Rudner

 Oh Joan.


 --Wendy Liebman

There will never be another Joan! Every female who's ever stood on stage, mic in hand & told jokes owes her EVERYTHING. RIP, funny girl.

--Carol Leifer

We have lost a true legend. Thank you Joan for paving the way for broads like me.

--Wanda Sykes 

With the exception of Judy Tenuta, all of the above quotes came from Twitter, in case you're curious about the lack of punctuation in some of them, and exactly how Wendy Liebman went about expressing that crying yellow face.

 At the time of her death, I wasn't a fan of Joan Rivers, and I'm not a fan two days later, and I doubt I'll be a fan a week from now. I WAS a fan of hers from around 1979 to about 1982 when, after being a minor media presence for about 15 years, she suddenly zoomed ahead of everybody else. Her excellent timing and spitfire delivery of one-liners was on par with Bob Hope, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles. And unlike Hope, she wrote all her own material, sometimes on the spot as she was a great ad-libber. I found her more dangerous than those other comedians, a rebel, which was important to me when I was 17 as I was more into comedy than rock music but still wanted the latter's sense of unruliness. I also began to see Rivers as an artist, whereas Hope, Dangerfield, and Rickles were mere entertainers who always played it safe. Her frequent appearances on Hollywood Squares notwithstanding, Rivers seemed to me to be more in step with the new kind of comedy that burst onto my TV-conscious consciousness with the arrival of Saturday Night Live in 1975, though it was 1983 before she actually guest hosted that show. Instead she did Carson, but was easily Carson's most provocative guest. I especially liked how she made fun of celebrities. Not that I really had anything against celebrities--I found them much more interesting than I ever did sports figures--but it just seemed oh-so-cutting edge, and no one ever cut deeper than Joan. 

Eventually my enthusiasm for Rivers dissipated. Pretty quickly, in fact. Even before she bombed with her own show opposite Carson, she had bombed with me. I can't remember what exactly it was that provoked it, but around 1983 I decided she wasn't a rebel, wasn't cutting edge, wasn't dangerous. No, I didn't decide she was just mean. Something far worse: opportunistic. Though she claimed to oppose celebrity worship, and that the opposition thereof was the reason for so much of her nastiness, I suspect she wanted to be a celebrity, with the added perk of worship, too much herself for her satire to ever rise above the superficial. Take her famous digs at the then-portly Elizabeth Taylor, which more than anything else let Rivers zoom ahead of the pack. I laughed at those jokes at the time, but, in retrospect, Rivers was just picking, and picking on, low-hanging flab. Taylor's career was in a slump in 1979. Rivers was making fun of a has-been, a has-been who had put on weight ("Her favorite food is seconds.") What a star looked like is the only problem she ever truly had with celebrity worship. That stars eventually lose their looks, or that some stars, inexplicably as far as she was concerned, never had much in the way of looks to begin with. Like the singer Adele, of whom Rivers recently remarked, "She sang live and said, 'My throat, my throat, I don't know if I can swallow.' And I said, 'Oh, you can swallow.’" To be fair to Rivers, Adele does indeed have a weight problem. So the next time one of her songs comes on the radio, remember what you're HEARING is a fat girl singing. Rivers, as she often did, used Adele's bank account--claiming it was a $100 million dollars--as an excuse for making fun of her. What a $100 million dollars wasn't, in accordance to Rivers own political views, was an excuse to unduly tax Adele. Rivers own $100 million dollars might have been jeopardized otherwise. But getting back to Elizabeth Taylor, by the end of the 1980s she was relatively thin again, and Rivers let her alone. She probably thought there was nothing left to make fun of, but there WAS. Once all the pounds were shed, Taylor came out with her own designer perfume. Or rather, some cosmetic company's lab had come up with a new fragrance, and she sold her name to it. Now, if there's any aspect of celebrity worship that is worth ridiculing beyond everything else, it's the celebrity endorsement, the idea we should rush out and purchase a bottle of perfume, a grill, a box of cereal, athletic shoes, hotel reservations, wine, a refrigerator, a rental car, a camera, chicken soup, pop or soda depending on where you live, some sort of bone medication, insurance, and a pizza simply because Liz Taylor, George Foreman, John McEnroe, Michael Jordon, William Shatner, Orson Welles, Betty Furness, OJ Simpson, James Garner, Arthur Godfrey, Michael Jackson, Sally Field, Charlie Brown, and  Mikhail Gorbachev are paid X amount of dollars to tell us to do so. But that was one aspect of celebrity culture Rivers never went after. She had her own line of jewelry, after all. Rivers in fact liked the celebrity status quo. Just as long as you stay young-looking, and if that seems impossible, do what she did and make repeated visits to the plastic surgeon until you look like a Guy Fawkes mask. 

I was originally going to mark Joan Rivers passing with a long essay contrasting her to, and ultimately finding her the unequal of, Sandra Bernhard, possibly the funniest woman on the planet. Bernhard first came into prominence about the same time Rivers was named permanent (until it wasn't) substitute host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Bernhard was everything Rivers professed to be: rebellious, a misfit, a rabble-rouser, and a trenchant observer of celebrity mores. She was a true outsider, genuinely alienated from the status quo, an ambassador from alternative culture whom Rivers couldn't possibly comprehend much less match rooted as she was in traditional show business. Instead of pricking the excess cellulite of a violet-eyed anachronism, Bernhard plunged her dagger right into the mercenary heart of contemporary culture ("Stone Phillips was invading my privacy. I was pissed until I realized I wanted Stone Phillips to invade my privacy. I've been working 25 years just so I could have some freak with a normal haircut invade my privacy.") She was also the only performer I know of capable of doing a dead-on Tina Louise imitation ("Ooh, Gilligan.") It wasn't all pop culture. Sometimes she examined the lives of normal everyday Americans. Teenage cheerleaders, for instance ("Oooh, Billy, you're so cute. I wish I wasn't your sister so I could fuck you!") As far as her appearance, she turned physical attractiveness on its head with her unique ability to look pretty, then homely, then pretty again at the twitch of one of her bulbous lips. Speaking of lips, eventually even she did a celebrity endorsement, but spouting off in a lipstick commercial about "thin-lipped Republican bitches" most likely improved sales only among Democrats. Whereas George Foreman grills would have been acceptable to all political persuasions (unless you thought boxing should be banned, in which case you might lean left.) Even if it she was a bit partisan, she did try to be fair to both sides of the political spectrum  ("On one side you have book burners, Congressional wives and Pat Robertson. On the other side, you have vulgar comedians, foul-mouthed rap groups and Dennis Hopper--all your choices should be so easy."--little did she know Hopper would turn Republican late in life.) I imagine being constantly on the cutting edge has probably hurt her career somewhat. I mean no disrespect when I say her stardom is marginal at best. She's a cult figure, and not the show biz phenomenon Rivers was. It's a pretty sizable cult, so I doubt that it bothers her too much.

So that was my game plan. Portray Bernhard as the true artist, and Rivers as a money-grubbing hack who passed off cheap shots as incisive social satire. Only one thing gave me pause. Would Bernhard herself agree with my assessment? How could she not? Still, before I got too far into it, I should make sure. Now, it's not like I could ask her. I don't know the woman, and, as marginal as her stardom may be, there was little chance of me ever meeting her. So I decided to check out her Twitter account. See if upon hearing of River's death she had exposed her for the phony iconoclast she really was. What I got instead was the comment near the top of this post. One of the greats? That takes something away from Bernhard's own greatness, if you ask me. I still believe my comparison of the two comediennes was valid, but it hurt me, and made it hard to write such an essay, that Bernhard didn't think so. Oh, Sandra, how could you do this to me?

Well, there were other controversial female comics out there, women who actually had something vital to say, and weren't merely pushing the envelope in the hope they could one day sell jewelry on QVC. I checked out Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho. They had nothing but the highest praise for Rivers. What the hell? I wondered if a siege mentality hadn't taken hold of them. Being the targets of scorn, they felt they all had to stick together and support one another. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. That kind of thing.

Panic set in. I was running out of controversial female comics. So I decided to take another tack. I'm not 18 anymore. I no longer demand that entertainment be cutting-edge as I once did. Indeed, I find 21st century pop culture to be excessively cutting-edge (while remaining routinely commercial.) All the obits were now portraying Rivers in feminist terms, as someone who had broken down barriers, who had opened doors for female comics of all stripes, from the very sedate to the extremely loudmouthed. Were the female comics themselves going along with that absurd notion? I scoured the Tweets of every comedienne who had ever made me laugh, giving special attention  to those who styles were very different from Rivers. Wendy Liebman is so soft-spoken she might as well be in the front row of a funeral service, but still knocks 'em dead with her jokes, if you'll pardon the pun. Ellen DeGeneres' coming out of the closet may have forever made her controversial in the eyes of some, but she is in fact a very good observational comic who takes a nuanced approach to things and doesn't feel the need to smash her subjects with a sledgehammer. And then there's Rita Rudner. Very funny but very gentle, the opposite of Rivers. Rudner is really the anti-Joan Rivers. Surely she owes Rivers nothing. Except, according to her tweet, she and all the other female comedians owe her not just a debt of gratitude but a HUGE debt of gratitude. All the other kinder, gentler comediennes were equally effusive in their praise. More effusive than they are on stage, as matter of fact. I decided to check up on Whoopi Goldberg, whose first big success was a one-woman show on Broadway that was basically stand-up. Though she seems very mainstream these days, Goldberg's background is in avant-garde theater, and that still informs her approach to comedy. Rivers kind of got her start the same way, playing Greenwich Village hangouts early on, but for the last 40 years her comedy's mostly been informed by Vegas. So there's little in common between those two. Except that according to Goldberg's tweet the two were friends, and she was now at such a loss of words she had to quote Billy Crystal! Whatever. Just please don't anyone start calling HIM a groundbreaking comedian.

I thought I finally struck gold with Janeane Garofalo. Her negative comment didn't come in the last few days but back in the late '90s. Rivers was hosting one of her popular critique-the-clothes-at-the-award-show cable specials, where she was joined by daughter/straight man Melissa and a panel of fashion experts. Though she pretended not to take it seriously, Rivers was never more wedded to show biz convention than when hosting these things, and despite all the clowning around, really seemed to feel who wore what mattered. The award show this time was the Emmys, and Garofolo had walked down the red carpet wearing something odd. I can't say what exactly, but the picture on the right should give you an idea of her typical wardrobe. It actually quite fits her image as an alternative comic who for a while looked like she might cross over into the mainstream. Whatever she was wearing that night, it wasn't your typical evening gown. Such a breach of decorum was too much for the famously-decorum-deficit Rivers and she not only criticized Garofalo for her transgression, calling her a "bag lady", but kept showing the tape of her walking down the red carpet over and over again in slow motion, raising the hackles of Melissa and the rest of the panel until someone, to Rivers delight, called Garofalo a "pig". Now, I haven't seen this particular show, can't find it on YouTube, and thus can't independently verify it. I have seen similar post-award show specials Rivers did back then, and find Garofalo's versions of events quite believable. The alternative comedienne was expecting some kind of criticism from Rivers, at first finding it funny, until the older female comic went for the kill. Garofolo told somebody in the media that it had made her cry.

Viola! I had my negative comment. The only problem was that it had a tit-for-tat quality about it. I wanted any anti-Rivers quotes to have the purity of objectivity. I couldn't help but feel that had Garofolo sat out that particular Emmy awards, she'd right now be tweeting that Rivers opened doors, broke down bounderies, etc. That Garofolo herself has been known to hurt people's feelings also complicated manners. I decided not to use the quote. I was back at square one.

It was time to face reality. If Bernhard, Griffin, Silverman, Tenuta, Boosler, Cho, DeGeneres, Goldberg, Rudner, Liebman, Leifer, and Sykes all liked Rivers, and I liked Bernhard, Griffin, Silverman, Tenuta, Boosler, Cho, DeGeneres, Goldberg, Rudner, Liebman, Leifer, and Sykes, but didn't like Rivers (or, more accurately, thought she was overrated) then there must be something wrong with ME. I stand by all my criticisms, but I have to admit it may have just been simple overexposure that turned me off to Rivers. I can only hear the word "vomit" so many times before I feel like vomiting myself.

I'd like to think all those women would have made it in comedy to whatever degree they have even if Rivers had never been born, but what do I know? I'm not a female comic. I have no idea of how hard it is for a woman to break into stand-up comedy. They seem to believe Rivers opened doors for them. If that is indeed the reason I can now enjoy the comic stylings of Sandra Bernhard, Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman, Judy Tenuta, Elaine Boosler, Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, Whoopi Goldberg, Rita Rudner, Wendy Liebman, Carol Leifer, and Wanda Sykes, then Joan, wherever you are, you done good.

One final quote:

Just gonna assume everyone telling me I'm ugly on twitter tonight is commemorating Joan Rivers and therefore I love you all

--Lena Dunham

No, I'm not a fan of Dunham, for the simple reason I've never seen her HBO series Girls, as I currently don't have cable. But this comment made me laugh out loud. I may have to become a fan--KJ



  1. Your honesty is compelling. I have mixed feelings about Joan. You've nicely identified some of them.

  2. Thank you, Kass. It's amazing how many words I can squeeze out of mixed feelings. Had I liked her more, I probably would have written a lot less!

  3. "Can We Talk ?"

    Very interesting review. Love your comment to Kass ( Hi Kass, wave)

    I like Joan but I like her less when she was overly cruel. It is just not my way to poke (and I kept trying to give my x the benefit of a doubt and he was a sociopath) and point out anyone's problems like Taylor's. But if they say and do things then they have put it out there and I guess it is fair game for anyone.
    I grew up with Joan and Phylliss Diller seeing women in a male dominated work place I give them all the credit to keep working at what they wanted to do. I think men say blah blah blah yes I understand women "can" be working but in reality most men think women as less. There was a new report out today about women getting less money when they have children while men with children get more for the same job. I will blog about this.

    Women have to slog through lots of crap that most men do not. While a man is brilliant at work and a great business man a women who does the same job is a bitch.
    So I give Joan a lot of credit.
    I like Margret Cho and Rita Rudner but not Lene Dunhan. She has sold out big time to get more attention of the press much like Kathy Griffin.
    She goes out supposing not caring what she wears and looking bored, sad and ugly. So that people will comment on how she looks and acts. Not her comedy. So don't pin your hopes on her. She is playing the press. And that photo of her is the best one I have ever seen. Just my bent opinion.

    cheers, parsnip

    cheers, parsnip

  4. Your bent opinion is welcome any time, parsnip.

    While on the subject of female stand-up comedians, there's also the great Lily Tomlin. I didn't use a quote from her (and indeed have no idea what she thought of Rivers) because she got her start around the same time as Joan, so most likely didn't regard her as an influence or inspiration. I chose women at least a generation or more younger than Rivers, who would have seen her as an established star when they were coming up.

  5. acckkkkk !
    Lily Tomlin I lurve her !
    This is why I am not a writer. Besides mangling the English language I write what I am thinking at the time.
    That is why I like blogging because comments are usually fast and short. But your posts are always so full of information and your feeling, I just charge through.
    This is also why I am not a writer but I do write haiku.

    cheers, parsnip

  6. I don't disagree with your assessments of Rivers, although I don't think she was doing anything much different than a lot of comedians. There is a culture of meanness (goes along with the profanity) in comedy nowadays, something I don't remember from my days watching Jack Benny or Bob Hope (even if Hope get off some Bing Crosby zingers).

    I don't think it is particularly funny to point out the obvious. Yes, Liz Taylor was fat. So what? I wish I could lose 20 lbs. I just didn't see the humor in the observation.

    I pointed out to my wife the last performance I saw of Rivers on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon where she said, "My vagina is so dry...when I got in the bathtub it sucked up all the water." I thought that was unbelievably crude and yet I was laughing at the sheer outrageousness of it. I compared it to over 40 years go when I saw Mickey Rooney making a joke to Johnny Carson about the Andy Hardy movies he starred in. He said, "They don't make girls like Polly anymore..." He followed it with a punchline which was totally bleeped out by the network. I don't know what he could have said that was so bad, but I'll bet it wasn't even in the same territory as Rivers' dry vagina.

    Rivers did one thing (inadvertently) that I wish I could order up for myself. She was 81 and still much in demand. She went in for a medical procedure, was put out and never came back. She died as if she had just gone to sleep and passed away. I wish all deaths were all that easy.

    1. Postino, crudity in and of itself doesn't bother me. You're talking to an old George Carlin fan. I would have laughed at the vagina joke. I just think crudity combined with a kind of mercenary ambition is kind of a turn-off to me. I thought Rivers was inevitably closer to someone like Andrew Dice Clay than Carlin or Richard Pryor. I saw Clay perform live once when I was in my '20s, and laughed at lot of his stuff, but didn't leave the concert thinking there was much artistry there. Of course, a lot of people could care less about artistry when watching a comedian. At one time I could care less about it, but I do now.

  7. In defense of Ms.Taylor,she was a true humanitarian.To go vulgar as Ms.Rivers did was not my cup of tea.Ms.Tomlin is my favorite comedian.

  8. Liz Taylor was very much involved in AIDS charities, at a time when a lot of celebrities wanted nothing to do with it.


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