When Joan Rivers left The Tonight Show in 1989, her decision reportedly outraged its then host Johnny Carson who “blacklisted” her from the program. That decree endured for 26 years and was finally broken by current host Jimmy Fallon. How did Rivers choose to mark the most momentous occasion of her career? Well, with a Holocaust joke, of course.
“I was in this Mercedes stretch limo,” she said explaining the reason for her tardiness, “we were stuck for two and a half hours! I’m thinking, the Germans killed six million Jews- they can’t fix a carburetor?” “Welcome back to the network, Joan!” A blushing and nervous Fallon said, while covering his face to mask his embarrassment and glee at being on the receiving end of such an inappropriate joke on late night television.
But that was Joan Rivers. Brash. Abrasive. No filter. And utterly hilarious. On the outside, she was made of silicone, botox and artificial serums. But on the inside- she was 100% genuine.
The off-color jokes got her into hot water with an array of groups. The ADL blasted her for her “anti-Semitic” material. PETA was horrified at her proud display of fur garments. Pro-Palestinian activists decried her comments about IDF activities during Operation Protective Edge. Celebrities shook with fear before encountering Rivers on the red carpet and braced themselves for her scathing critique.
“I can’t believe at your age you’re still at war with everyone,” Howard Stern – a man not exactly known for holding back either - said in awe of the comedian in an interview with her earlier this year. And, yet, despite the vitriol behind her humor, she still managed to make friends out of enemies. Russell Crowe, for example, who was also a guest on that night in March where Rivers returned to The Tonight Show, found himself unabashedly chuckling at jokes about the deteriorating nature of the comedienne’s anatomy even though she spent over a decade skewering the star for his own fashion choices and hygiene.
“Dear Joan, 12 years being the butt of your jokes ...Then we met, had a laugh and I learned you were something amazing. Shine on,” the Gladiator star posted on Twitter on Thursday.
When someone’s legacy includes four decades on television over a variety of genres (we’re talking talk shows, red carpet specials and reality TV programs to name a few) and 12 best-selling books it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact area where one excelled.
But if her epitaph had to be confined to one word, “trailblazer” would be the most appropriate.
That is because before Rivers, the world simply didn’t have a female comedian who commanded a room simply by the wielding of her microphone and spewing caustic, cutting and honest jokes.
In the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary and about her career Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work
, she recalls the closing joke in her first original act where she said, “This business is all about casting couches. So I just want you to know – my name is Joan Rivers and I put out.”
According to Rivers, Jack Lemmon – who was in the audience – told her the joke was “disgusting” and walked out.
“’You’re going into places you shouldn’t go. It’s not right, women shouldn’t be talking like that,’” she recalled her manager telling her. “And I thought, ‘you’re so wrong! This is exactly what we should be talking about.’” Speaking to the Today Show, her friend and protégée Kathy Griffin said, “I will miss her forever, but I’m also so dazzled and impressed by her. Even the night before she went into her coma she did a book Q&A and a one-hour set here in New York…. She absolutely paved the way for me and kind of really all the girls.”
But perhaps the biggest tragedy in Rivers’ long, versatile career is that the respect that she so badly craved will only be given to her now that she’s gone. Since her passing, everyone from Prince Charles, to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have come forward to express condolences.
“I’ve never been the critics’ darling, I’ve always been considered a comic. A borsch belt comic or a Vegas comic, there was always an adjective before my name and it was never a nice adjective,” she said in the documentary, lamenting her outsider status in an industry where status means everything. But even though she was never considered the elite of her comedy pack (which included George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor to name a few), she often acknowledged her star-studded, eventful, rich life in Hollywood.
“I’ve had an amazing life…and we’ve had a great life together. Look at how lucky we are,” an unusually makeup-free Rivers told her daughter Melissa last year in her reality show, Joan and Melissa Know Best. Looking weak and vulnerable, the short clip revealed that even though she was indefatigable, everyone must face death – even someone as outrageous, outspoken and vivacious as Joan Rivers.
She may have been born as Joan Alexandra Molinsk, a first generation immigrant to Russian Jews, but – if her final wishes are granted – she’ll be buried as Hollywood royalty.
“When I die…I want my funeral to be a huge showbiz affair with lights, camera and action. I want it to be Hollywood all the way. Don’t give me some Rabbi rambling on. I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents,” she wrote in her best selling book Diary of Mad Diva.
The Late Show host Craig Ferguson probably said it best on his program when he joked, “I just hope that when she meets the man upstairs, he’ll be wearing something that she can insult.”
Hopefully, the workaholic comedienne will have plenty of material wherever she is. She certainly wouldn’t expect anything less.