Because I’m an idiot, I haven’t listened to Joan Rivers’ comedy that much over the years. I’m not sure why. Maybe all that plastic surgery and red carpet stuff turned me off. Maybe I’m not just an idiot, but a sexist idiot. Whatever the case, I’m finally realizing what just about everyone else knew for decades: Rivers was the one of the greatest comedians ever, with an energy level bordering on nuclear fusion, and her jokes were incredible.
Though known for her insults, Rivers could more than pull off absurdity. Some of her jokes are incredibly silly: “I got a waterbed, but my husband stocked it with trout.” Others have a wonderful literalism: “I blame my mother for my poor sex life. All she told me was, ‘The man goes on top and the woman underneath.’ For three years my husband and I slept in bunk beds.” Speaking of sex, here she offers a rebuttal to women’s optimistic sexual expectations: “Everybody talks about multiple orgasms. Multiple orgasms! I’m lucky if both sides of my toaster pop.”
I watched her DVD Don’t Get Me Started—recorded in Chicago when she was 78—three times in the past week. I don’t know if Rivers’ cells turned solar radiation into superpowers like Superman’s, but her energy level was astounding and her jokes devastating. Some riffs are as well-crafted as they are tasteless, like a run about Anne Frank, who Rivers paints as a braggy one-book author who should go back to school: “Did you ever read her fucking book? Some author. There’s no ending.” After describing annoying children on an airplane, she asks, “Where is Casey Anthony when you need her?” I don’t think any segment of society goes unscathed—including, as usual, Rivers herself. A physical bit in which she compares her breasts to a pair of slinkies is sublime. I thought Anthony Jeselnik was mean, but he’s practically a Muppet by comparison. His shtick is deliberately, obviously made-up, a professional wrestler’s shenanigans. Rivers was more like a mixed martial artist.
Somehow, her comedy was vicious yet not mean-spirited. She insulted thin people, disabled people, old people, ugly people, disabled people, children, Jenny Craig, the Kardashians, and everyone else with such glee that it was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm. Her energy was so potent it might be what turned Mars red. I was intrigued to see Chris Rock recently say that a lot of his style comes from Joan Rivers. That’s kind of obvious now. They share a similar energy and showmanship that make it impossible to look away: if one joke doesn’t land, another is already on the way. Rivers, like Rock, was a fastball pitcher, and she never lost her good stuff.
For Rivers’ Best Joke Ever, I’m spoiled for choices, but I have to go with what might be her most personal and dark joke: “My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head.”
Let’s look at this joke piece by piece: “My husband killed himself.” This statement of fact does not get things off to a rollicking start. It’s practically anti-comedy.
“And it was my fault.” This is even less funny, if that’s possible. Now we’ve got a real suicide plus a widow blaming herself. Not exactly an episode of Friends.
Finally, we get a punch line that turns the entire scenario upside down: “We were making love and I took the bag off my head.”
Wow. This joke is complete validation of the idea, put forth by George Carlin and others, that you can joke about anything—as long as you’re aiming at the right target.
Look at all the ground this joke covers: It deals with the pain of suicide. It addresses survivor guilt. And it makes fun of Rivers. You shouldn’t be able to tell a joke about your spouse’s suicide, and you probably can’t. Joan Rivers could.
But that’s not a surprise, since she could seemingly do anything, and she wouldn’t let anything—age, sexism, tragedy, or bullshit—stop her. In Piece of Work, Rivers discusses some setbacks, then offers some advice I’m making my personal mantra: “One continues. Don’t look back. Who gives a shit?”