We’ve barely had time to recover from two devastating losses already, when we’re hit with another. Joan Rivers has died aged 81. She went into cardiac arrest during vocal cord surgery last Thursday and had been on life support ever since.
Rivers began her career in the 1950s as an actress and stand-up comedian, making her name on the New York circuit as a person who wasn’t afraid to break taboos. Nothing changed over her sixty-year career: she was still talking about things no one else would go near right up to her death. Can you imagine being relevant for sixty years? Rivers kept her material moving with the times she lived through, constantly keeping her cutting edge jokes fresh and relevant. How many comedians on Mock the Week are going to be performing to sell-out crowds in sixty years?
To call her a comedian is reductive. Joan Rivers was an actress, best-selling author, playwright, stand-up, and an Emmy-award winning talk show host. Everything she turned her hand – and iconic rasping voice – to was a huge success. Her humour even had her banned from several shows including The Tonight Show. She didn’t just break boundaries: she blew them so far apart they weren’t visible anymore.
That’s not to mention Fashion Police, where she hosted the show dedicated to doing what Rivers did best: trashing celebrities. You’ll hear the collective weeping of thousands of Joan rangers tonight. The celebrity fashion was always secondary to Joan’s harsh, hilarious barbs about people she clearly hadn’t even heard of until she had to make a crack about their bad dress. She could get away with being the harshest voice though, like when she mocked Whitney Houston on the night she died (though wisely this episode only aired once). That was always her style though – she’d verbally beat you down until you were crying like an angry baby, then she’d start getting really hilarious. The worst was always reserved for herself though, to the point where Rolling Stone magazine once criticised her by saying “everything she says about herself is true”.
She lived to mock other people, and the other people had two reactions: they loved her for it, playing along with her witty takedowns; or they’d throw other celebrities in front of her so they wouldn’t have to feel the force of a Joan Rivers comment. With her death, the world gets a lot less funny.