There were many tragic celebrity deaths in 2014, and I feel the most personally sad about the death of Joan Rivers. My husband and I loved watching her host the show Fashion Police. In response to her witty and often naughty comments, we would exclaim “Oh, Joan!” On Fashion Police, she critiqued stars’ outfits with bawdy and sometimes dirty humor.
Many considered Joan a nuisance, or a foul-mouthed “bitch,” names Joan would have reveled in. She was an unapologetic trailblazer; similarly to anti-conventional comediennes such as Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller, she was decidedly not self-deprecating. Because she defied stereotypes and social mores for female comics, female performers of any genre, and women in general, Joan could be called a nonconformist feminist. She relates to many examples we study and critique in my course BLS 348: Representing Women.
Contrary to other female comics of the past and of today, she didn’t put herself down, but also didn’t quite put others down either. She “made fun” of others, always in the spirit of humor. Her critiques were never harsh, although some of her comments, especially on Fashion Police, quite literally hit below the belt. Following her death, the E! Channel showed a marathon of Joan’s greatest Fashion Police episodes, culminating in a tribute episode of the show in which her co-hosts, Giuliana Rancic, George Kotsiopoulos, and Kelly Osborn as well as the executive producer of the show, Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, shared their memories of Joan and of the show, with laughter and tears. There was a series of clips from over the years of Joan’s characteristically vulgar pussy jokes. Another humorous montage was of clips in which Joan struggles to get her jokes out, as she cracks herself up. She made herself and others laugh. She also laughed at herself, making unashamed jokes about the effects of aging and her many cosmetic surgery procedures.
Throughout the footage about Joan’s death on TV, countless celebrities have said she not only made them smile, but that she was generous with her time, resources, and advice; many likened her to a mother, grandmother, or confidant. Fashion designers also called Joan a friend and an advocate. She coined the red carpet question “Who are you wearing?,” sharing the attention given to the dolled up celebrity with the designer of their garb.
I had seen the fascinating documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010), a few years ago and was compelled to watch it again when I heard she had died.
The film underscores that Joan was a pioneer for female comics. In 1983, she became the first comedienne on The Tonight Show. She left in 1986 because she was offered the chance to host her own show, The Late Show with Joan Rivers. The show only lasted for 1 season, due to poor ratings and lack of sponsorship. Her husband, Edgar Rosenburg, served as a producer, and according to the documentary, other executives working on the show blamed him for the problems and told her to get rid of him. She refused, the show was cancelled, and the couple eventually separated. A few months later, Rosenburg committed suicide. The film doesn’t suggest that Joan or her failed show was the direct cause of this, and his Wikipedia page states that he suffered from clinical depression.
Following the end of her show and the loss of her estranged husband, Joan’s career tanked. She continued to do any stand up she could and eventually made a huge television comeback by winning on the show Celebrity Apprentice. She proved herself a shrewd business woman, who took charge of her career and later created a line of fashion, jewelry, and beauty items for QVC.
At the time of her death at 81, she lived with her daughter and grandson in New York City, where she filmed a reality show and made appearances on QVC to market her line, traveled all over the country for stand up performances and appearances, and flew to Los Angles each week to film Fashion Police. Giuliana Rancic said Joan got to the set at 3 AM (they filmed at 8 AM) and would routinely have her special beverage during filming – a paper coffee cup with a straw, filled with white wine.
In September of 2014, Joan had had a routine, outpatient procedure, an endoscopy, which involved the insertion of a tiny camera to look down her throat into her digestive system. During the procedure, she went into cardiac arrest, was taken to the hospital, and was put into a medically-induced coma to allow her brain to repair itself. She never came out of the coma. Considering the high level of activity in her life, it seemed like a tragedy, similar to the recent and untimely deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. She hadn’t been slowing down, and her death was sudden. It made me sad. Then I realized that maybe this was the best way for her to go. She was at the top of her game, and her death was painless, without suffering or the knowledge of her impending demise.
I will miss seeing Joan on Fashion Police and red carpets. In her honor, I just purchased a Fashion Police t-shirt with the name for her team of fans, “Joan Rangers,” on the back. I will wear it proudly.