Saturday, September 6, 2014

Joan, RIP

I never disliked Joan Rivers, but I was not necessarily a fan either. Sometimes I loved listening to her and sometimes I found her to be as annoying as fingernails on a chalkboard.

In other words, I never thought I would spend space on this blog eulogizing her when she passed. But here I am, eulogizing away.

At the end of the day, you had to like her spitfire wit and personality.

At the end of the day you had to believe that even if some of the criticisms of Rivers were fair in the details, those same criticisms were unfair about the big picture.

Maybe those contradictory impulses explain why her death comes as a shock even though she was 81 years old. How could someone so tough and resolute die? How could the Grim Reaper possibly be a match for someone as steel-willed as she?

I always assumed that when the Grim Reaper came calling, Joan Rivers would give him the middle finger, spit in his eye, and kick him down the street chased by a stream of obscenities about how he is evil and stupid and thus totally incapable of getting his hands on her.

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Although Joan was her real first name, the last name Rivers was a pseudonym. FDR had been in office less than six months when she was born in Brooklyn and given the name Joan Alexandra Molinsky. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia.

After Rivers reached adulthood and achieved fame, more than a few people dipped into their bags of ethnic slurs and called her a JAP (which means "Jewish American Princess," for those of you too young to remember when slurs were tossed around even in mixed company). Rivers had champagne tastes and the financial largess to indulge those tastes many times over, and she would never consider apologizing for it. She was a success on her own terms and would never apologize for it. She was confident and didn't hide it. She had plastic surgery countless times, starting before it became fashionable, and unlike so many other vain celebrities she never hid or shied away from the fact.

But so what? Doesn't champagne taste imply good taste, and isn't good taste, well, good? And why should anyone feel guilty about succeeding, when succeeding is precisely what our free enterprise system is supposed to enable? And how can you succeed without being confident?

What you don't hear much about is the fact that Joan Rivers was a hands-on volunteer for the charity God's Love We Deliver, which prepares and delivers "nutritious, high-quality meals to people who, because of their illness, are unable to provide or prepare meals for themselves." The organization does not discriminate among illnesses, but a majority of the people it serves have AIDS or cancer. In addition to performaing actual work for the organization and giving it money, she served on its board of directors from 1994 until she died. That she never sought publicity for her charitable acts says something positive about her character.

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If Rivers lived a pearls and caviar lifestyle, it was not handed down to her on a silver platter covered with silver spoons. She earned it the old fashioned way.

In the 1950's she appeared in a play called Driftwood, portraying a lesbian who had a crush on a character played by Barbra Streisand. At the time, neither of those future superstars were well-known and "such things" were rarely discussed in public. The play's run ended after six weeks.

She later became employed as a gag writer for (and occasional participant in) Candid Camera, but it was on February 17, 1965 that she made her first big splash when she appeared on The Tonight Show. Impressed with her joke-telling and potential, Johnny Carson had her come back repeatedly over the years and eventually she began substituting for him on his days off. She guest hosted for him more than 80 times before becoming his first permanent guest host in 1983.

There were practically no female comedians before Joan Rivers appeared on the scene, but today they are legion. Surely all the Sandra Bernhards and Brett Butlers and Ellen DeGenereses and Whoopi Goldbergs and Rosie O'Donnells and Paula Poundstones and Wanda Sykeses who have filled our screens over the last 35 years owe her a debt of gratitude for having paved the road on which they drive.

And of course, she parlayed her stand-up success into a multifaceted entertainment career as an actress, writer, talk show host, all-around fashionista, and can't-miss guest on both TV and radio.

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Rivers was engaging precisely because she took a no-holds-barred approach to absolutely everything, and thus defied the quaint notion of behaving ladylike. She was brutally honest in her observations and they were funny precisely because they were so unvarnished. No topic was safe from Rivers's barbs, nor was any demographic group (including her own) or any person (including herself).

Her comedy routines amounted to a torrent of satire and glibness that dealt with everything from sex to gossip to world affairs. The torrent was delivered bluntly and with no attempt to avoid hurting anyone's feelings.

Always true to her opinion, she once said "I've learned to have absolutely no regrets about any jokes I've ever done...You can tune me out, you can click off the TV, it's ok. I am not going to bow to political correctness." Don't we all wish we felt as free as she did about using our right to free speech that was given to us by God and is protected for us by the U.S. Constitution?

In January of this year, Rivers appeared on an Israeli variety show whose host asked why nobody loves Israel. Rivers responded by saying: "If they don't love you, tell them to go fuck themselves." Then she proceeded to recite ten reasons she loves Israel, one of which was "because it's not Egypt" and another of which was "because I love your blue and white flag, it matches my legs." For reason number one, she showed her serious side by saying "you had me at shalom."

This summer, when approached by a TMZ reporter who asked for her thoughts on the situation in Gaza, Rivers let him and them have it by saying: "Palestinians -- you cannot throw rockets and expect people not to defend themselves!" And this: "Let me just tell you, if New Jersey were firing rockets into New York, we would wipe them out. If we heard they were digging tunnels from New Jersey to New York, we would get rid of Jersey."

When the TMZ reporter asked about Palestinian civilians being killed in the crossfire, she said of/to Hamas: "You started it. Don't you dare make me feel bad about that."

I never heard Joan Rivers refer to herself as either a conservative or a liberal, and I don't believe either of those labels would apply. But on the topic of religious violence in the Middle East, it was refreshing to hear her say what she believed and not give a damn about the fact that most of the Hollywood types in her circle would stridently disagree.

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Like I indicated earlier when I mentioned her charity work, there was much more to Joan Rivers than her sardonic wit and acidic tongue.

I learned of her death when I glanced at my phone and saw that a high school friend of mine had written the following on Facebook: "I met Joan Rivers once and she was delightful. Rest in Peace, Joan." I believe her.

Since Joan Rivers passed, media have been camped outside her Manhattan apartment building. It was reported on NY1 (New York's 24-hour news station) that Melissa Rivers had pizza delivered to the media members because Joan would have wanted them to be taken care of.

Those are glimpses into the great comedienne's soft side.

There was also a sandpapery side that joked about Adele's weight and about the Ohio women who were held hostage for a decade by Ariel Castro.

And there was an over the top showbiz side that manifested itself when she remarked that when it came time for her funeral, "I want paparazzi and I want publicists making a scene!...I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents...I want to be buried in a Valentino 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."

So, every person in America could look at her and see things about her that he or she loved, as well as things about her that he or she couldn't stand. And what could be more American than that?

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