The Comedy of Joan River

They [the Palestinians] started it.  We now don’t count who’s dead.  You’re dead.  You deserve to be dead.  You started it.  Don’t you dare make me feel sad about that.

– Joan Rivers, Daily Mail, Aug 8, 2014

The politics of the body, those irreverent observations about her vagina, and, well, everything else associated with the district of flesh – that was something Joan Rivers was rather good at.  She made fun of her own plastic constitution (so much plastic, in fact, that on her death, she would be donated to Tupperware.)   She made fun of those who could not make fun about themselves on the issue of going under knife for aesthetic reasons.  She also brandished her own knife from time to time on a range of subjects.

In terms of politics, Rivers claimed to be something else – not the social commentator of matters on the Hill, or the state of the union.  For one, she claimed she wasn’t ever political.  Her speaking gigs in Washington avoided that city’s lust for the practice with manic fastidiousness.  “They can be terribly disappointed because I’m very apolitical, and, in D.C., they love politics.”

Comedians are not necessarily good politicians, just as politicians are rarely good comedians – at least intentionally.  Rivers attempted to veer away from it, claiming that “very moron is doing it”, though she did carefully exempt Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  They, at least, were on to something.

Singer Pat Boone thought her “very conservative politically”, something that she shared with her late husband Edgar Rosenberg.  Both husband Edgar and wife Joan did venture to listen to one of Jerry Falwell’s meets in the late 1980s, when the Moral Majority co-founder was getting flying high.  “They were just happy to hear what Jerry had to say and evaluate it for themselves.”[1]

She got peevish in 2012 at President Barack Obama’s wishes to raise taxes on that part of the US populace who somehow escape the orbit of Inland Revenue.  (She was, incidentally, keen of lumping Mitt Romney and Obama in the same tub of idiocy.)  “I feel that I’m part of the two percent and I’m really not interested in a woman who has 95 children and has 95 husbands.  I think the Chinese have it right: You each have one child, two children and you take care of them” (Politico, Jun 11, 2012).  All the classic conservative signatures of revulsion: overly fecund mother, many seed shooting fathers, generally irresponsible living.

In this Rivers demonstrates the classic outmoded view of accumulated wealth.  Her views on it were those of the slogging, toiling labourer, not the Wall Street speculator knee-deep in the derivatives market.  And let’s ignore those comfy corporate sinecures and standard welfare for the wealthy, all of which doomed the pioneer spirit even before it really took hold.  “I think if I work very hard, I should be able to gather the fruits of my labour.  And I think if you’re not about to work, you should get minimal and leave me alone.  I think if you don’t wear a helmet and you fall off your bike, you pay for the doctor.”

From the issue of social policy to that of sympathies for Israel, she could snipe erratically.  In August, she decided at LAX airport to take a good historical dump on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.  Much like matters of social policy, the issues were simple to the point of caricature: if you are going to be bombed, leave. Those staying in their soon to be demolished abodes were “idiots” and that “at least the ones that were killed were the ones with very low IQs.”[2]

The low IQ was evidently not confined to those killed – Gaza’s rocket attacks were merely the equivalent of going to Madonna’s house to “throw paint bottles”, a limp declaration that resulted in over 2,000 deaths.  “When you declare war, you deserve war.”  Such pristine simplicity.

For all of that, Rivers exposed the treacheries of the comedy scene, notably comedy that induces the reproach, the groan, the angst-ridden rejection.  Does it provoke catharsis, or simple loathing?  The press were divided.  As Charlotte Alter suggested in Time (Sep 4), various media outlets were suddenly casting off Joan the Mean and embracing Joan the courageous pioneer.[3]

The staff at Jezebel were always going to have problems with Rivers’ missile like devastation of appearance and all things superficial, largely because she could admit to understanding that very same thing.  Tracie Egan Morrissey, for instance, was “pissed off” at remarks that Kate Winslet had “a weight problem” and that someone had to direct a “she’s chubby” comment at Mariah Carey.[4]

The Rivers’ formula, unvarnished, uncured, is that of laughter itself.  Jokes may be at other people’s expense.  They may be at your own expense. It may be directed at tragedy or defect.  It is often a tariff worth paying.  For Rivers, it was a way of coping, the razor that cuts through those weights that have a habit of finding their way onto human experience.  “If you laugh at it, you can deal with it, and if you don’t, you can’t deal with it.  And don’t start telling me that I shouldn’t be saying it.  That’s the way I do it.”[5]

Her work did have various social repercussions, the sort that breaches and breaks.  Rivers broke her own series of ceilings with her acts, so much so she put Johnny Carson’s nose out of its sacred joint.  (Carson had initially warmed to use her services as a guest host on his program.)  Comediennes were to be seen and only occasionally heard.  For all of that, you always knew that she was having a corking time of it.  In her own words, “I would have been laughing at Auschwitz.”

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: