She was quick, controversial, and compelled to cross every line – out loud. And, she made me laugh even when it was against my better judgement. I think I first saw her on TV in the 1980s being interviewed by Bob Monkhouse or Michael Parkinson who would later call her “the world’s most hilarious and endearing bitch.” Watching in our living rooms, we willed her to say something irreverent, and she rarely let us down. Joan Rivers had nothing to hide.
In her article in The Atlantic about Joan’s passing, Megan Barber acknowledges the comedienne’s trademark restlessness
You could say a lot about those decisions Rivers made, in terms of age, in terms of beauty, in terms of femininity. But what you could also say is that she was, in all those choices, quintessentially American. She was restless. She was constantly reinventing herself. She was constitutionally unsatisfied. She was Jay Gatsby with a facelift, basically. Except—and here is the thing—she had no secrets. She was open about her manipulations. And, in that, she made fun of our own. She took our myths—all the unfair expectations we place on ourselves for constant beauty, for constant charm, for constant gracefulness—and laughed at them.
I suppose we could say whatever we want the way we do when we talk and write about famous people we don’t even know. Still, I always found something vulnerable in the persona that is Joan Rivers, the vulnerability you would expect to see in someone who shows her cards. All of them.
Now that I’m a bit older (and not as controversial as Joan Rivers), I understand better that sometimes it is just different for girls, especially those who do not conform. I understand better that sometimes it is true that if I don’t laugh, I really will cry. Mostly, I understand that sometimes my jokes about my breast cancer and my widowhood and my spectacular inability to manage well motherhood, money, and menopause will make you uncomfortable or render you unable to carry on an earnest conversation with me. And, I understand that maybe I’m just as difficult for you as I am for myself. If that’s the case, then maybe you shouldn’t listen to me. Just move on. Don’t – as Bo Dylan says – think twice. It’s alright. Really, it is.
Sometimes I think that some of the people who love me cannot bear to think of me as a widow, alone and preoccupied with thoughts of her own mortality, utterly incapable of holding all the pieces together. They don’t say so, of course. They don’t like to imagine me imagining how much easier some things might be if Ken were still here. I imagine most of us never thought of Joan Rivers as a widow who still said goodnight to her husband, or a mother who said “I love you,” before hanging up at the end of every phone-call with her daughter. Those parts of her didn’t incur the faux-indignation of the media. Those parts of her were not outrageous enough, unlike her first stand-up performance after her husband’s death when she told the audience, ‘My husband killed himself and it was my fault . . . we were making love and I took the bag off my head.’
Laughter. The best medicine. Good company does the job too.
In A Piece of Work, the documentary about her life, Joan Rivers shares how she was – until the end apparently – driven by a need to have “every hour of every day in her appointment book filled.” Holding up a blank page on her calendar, she exclaims “You want to see fear. I’ll show you fear.”
For me, I think the opposite is true. Filling up my calendar reminds me that every day is an anniversary of something, a reminder to be afraid or sad or joyful. Sometimes, I think I would far rather just accept the days as they unfold, minute by minute, no reminders necessary to remember my history, no expectations for how the future might unfurl.
Joan Rivers, I hope the paparazzi are out in full force for the funeral. I hope you get the send-off you wanted. And, I hope you get your beauty sleep.
When I die . . . I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents. I don’t want a eulogy; I want Bobby Vinton to pick up my head and sing “Mr. Lonely.” I want to look gorgeous, better dead than I do alive. I want to be buried in a Valentine gown and I want Harry Winston to make me a toe tag.
And I want a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyonce’s.