When Joan Rivers died last year at the age of 81, it wasn’t only a plastic-faced, potty-mouthed comic genius that faded into the night; it was an entire wave of comedy. It only took a good couple of months for everybody to actually realise it. For the last five years of her life, Rivers hosted E!’s red carpet panel series Fashion Police, officially a show concerned with celebrity style, unofficially a platform for Rivers’ unique brand of acerbic wit and self-deprecating derision. So what happens when the sole reason for a show’s existence vanishes into the ether? If you’re the E! network, essentially a flash of D-list side-boob in television form, you ride that little truck of money till the wheels fall off.
Fashion Police has been active as a series of award show specials since January, now hosted by comedian Kathy Griffin, its panellists Kelly Osbourne, stylist Brad Goreski and red carpet praying mantis Giuliana Rancic. All seemed to be going well, albeit in a ‘limply attached to an intravenous drip’ kind of way, until last week’s racial controversy involving Rancic and alleged famous person Zendaya. Rancic joked that the dreadlocks Zendaya sported on the Oscars red carpet made her look like she smelled of “patchouli oil and weed,” a misfired gag that many interpreted as stereotypical and unfunny at best, plain ol’ racist at worst. Particularly in light of her February praising of Kylie Jenner for wearing “edgy” and “urban” dreadlocks for a photoshoot. Zendaya was justifiably offended, Rancic sought forgiveness, and Osbourne packed up her bags and quit, supposedly in protest over the whole affair.
It was an odd scandal, full of inexplicably noteworthy people communicating with each other via video apologies, cultural essays and scarily illiterate Twitter ramblings. But what it did do was highlight not only the fact that Fashion Police as a whole should take after Osbourne and exit stage left, but that the mean, biting humour that defined Joan Rivers’ career might just have died along with her.
There were signs of a change in the air throughout the last years of Rivers’ life: the think pieces that popped up in light of her Adele weight jibes, the tabloid controversy over an old Jewish lady’s thoughts on Palestine. In an age of very glossy, mainstream politeness, her casual comedic cruelty suddenly seemed like a relic of the past. She still mostly got away with it, but the cultural shift was palpable. Rancic, being a personality-vacuum TV host in comparison to an older, eccentric comedian, just couldn’t ‘pull a Joan.’ From her mouth, the gag seemed tone-deaf and reflective of the worst kind of cultural tourism. From Rivers, would have likely been a cringey joke nobody would have noticed.
What is left is a show in flux, not only because its trademark humour lived and died with Joan Rivers, but because it’s such a transitory time for politically incorrect comedy as well as celebrity fashion coverage. The #askhermore campaign acted as a fight back against the red carpet interviews many actresses have denounced as vacuous and misogynistic, while the activism of celebrities like Beyoncé and Emma Watson have instigated greater media coverage to a specific brand of glamorous, Hollywood feminism.
It all clashes against the values of a show that essentially reduces famous women to floaty objects in fabrics and jewels. There’s still an audience for inoffensive talk about pretty dresses, and while it’s more niche than ever right now, society at large can always benefit from some barbed, mean-spirited wit. But they both require smarts to do it well. It might have been her one-liners that got Joan Rivers in the room, but it was her brain that kept her there.