The “mouth that roared” is now silent.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933 to Russian immigrant parents, Dr. Meyer and Beatrice Molinsky, Joan Rivers, who died on Sept. 4 at 81 from complications during vocal cord surgery, grew up in the shadow of an older sister and with many complexes. “I was so fat; I was my own buddy in camp,” she would say.
Despite her carefully crafted comic persona, she actually was a brilliant student, a graduate of Barnard College with high honors in 1954.
Ignoring her parents’ pleas, Ms. Rivers pursued a career as an actress, dancer, and singer. But comedy provided a better fit. A long apprenticeship that included performing in the Catskill hotels (because she had a car and agreed to drive her male peers there and back), a stint with Chicago’s Second City ensemble, many night clubs, and some “toilets” ultimately led to success capped by a brilliant 10 minutes on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1965.
Billed as a writer, Ms. Rivers, who changed her last name at her agent’s suggestion when she entered show business, was 32 when she vaulted into stardom. Her early shtick, with shades of traditional Jewish humor, featured self-deprecation, especially about her allegedly “ugly duckling” appearance. In fact, before multiple cosmetic surgeries, she was actually quite pretty if not drop-dead gorgeous. For example (from critic Sarah Blacher Cohen’s essay “Unkosher Comediennes”):
♦ “On our wedding night, my husband said: ‘Can I help with the buttons?’ I was naked at the time.”
♦ “You’ve heard of A Cup, B Cup, and C Cup. Well, you’re looking at demitasse.”
♦ “Dress by Oscar de la Rental; body by Oscar Meyer.”
Obviously, she posed no threat to the femmes fatales or macho males in the audience. As a Jewish comedienne, she evaded the lethal blows of anti-Semitism by mocking our tribe and herself:
♦ “I want a Jewish delivery — to be knocked out in the delivery room and wake up two weeks later at the hairdresser’s.”
♦ “A Jewish porno film is made up of one minute of sex and six minutes of guilt.”
♦ “Jews get orgasms in department stores.”
Unlike her female predecessors, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Totie Fields, and Belle Barth, the attractive Joan Rivers wrote her own material and launched an arsenal of verbal missiles at sundry targets.
She was a staunch defender of Israel. During an appearance on an Israeli comedy show, she declared of critics of Israel, “If they don’t love [Israel], tell them to go f*** themselves. Then she read a list of “Top Ten Ways to Say I Love Israel,” including “I love Israel so much, at night I go to bed wearing only Chanel No. 5 and an Uzi.”
During this summer’s war against Hamas terrorists in Gaza, she said, “You cannot throw rockets and expect people not to defend themselves. If New Jersey were firing rockets into New York we would wipe them out!”
Ms. Rivers peppered her routines with Yiddish words in order to proclaim, rather than hide, her Jewish identity.
In the late 1970s, she became more aggressive, dirtier like America’s fabled but polluted rivers. Average folks identified with her when she attacked celebrities, the rich and so-called beautiful people, namely, Elizabeth Taylor, Christine Onassis, Nancy Kissinger, and Bo Derek. Rivers declared that Derek, the putative “Ten,” “is so dumb that she has to study for her Pap Test.” Inspired by the late Lenny Bruce, who had encouraged her to expand her vocabulary, Ms. Rivers began a barrage of shmutz (dirty words) to engage audiences in the pursuit of truth as Yente-in-Chief.
As she titillated her fans with a new rallying cry — “Can we talk?” — Rivers defended this dramatic departure as a response to “tasteless times.” In a real sense, she spoke to the disaffected if not “silent majority” — for outsiders and women who lacked power but possessed other assets. Following the exhortation of Sophie Tucker, Rivers urged women to barter sex for rewards. “Marry rich. Buy him a pacemaker, then stand behind him and say BOOOOH!” Playing it safely, however, she was both a feminist rebel and, at same time, an advocate for feminine guile
Growing more conservative in the 1980s, Ms. Rivers lampooned the Democratic ticket of Mondale and Ferraro as “Fritz and Tits.” If elected in 1984, they would constitute “three boobs in the White House.” The strategy of offending feminists and befriending Nancy Reagan was tailored to a new Joan Rivers persona. On the subject of tailors, Elizabeth Taylor, a beauty who had gained weight in her later years, received no mercy from Rivers:
♦ “Her thighs are going condo.”
♦ “She wears stretch caftans.”
♦ “She has more chins than a Chinese phone book.”
Later, Ms. Rivers would explain, her barbs hurled at Taylor, a convert to Judaism, were based on envy not malice. Crossing boundaries, seeking acclaim, Ms. Rivers pushed the envelope with hubris. When she, in accord with her husband-manager Edgar Rosenberg, decided to compete with Johnny Carson on the Fox network at the same late-night time slot, things fell apart. A furious Carson permanently broke off relations with his former acolyte. The experiment failed. Fox executives fired Edgar. Depressed and separated from Joan, Edgar committed suicide.
Undaunted, resilient, a “cat” with many lives, she clawed back to fame with jokes about her marriage, “gigs” on the red carpet as a fashionista alongside daughter Melissa, night-club performances, guest appearances on television, moonlighting as a shopping network pitchwoman, and performances at college venues.
I attended one show at Brooklyn College. That memorable evening featured Rue Paul, a transgendered performer, who was compelled to leave the stage prompted by a chorus of boos. Ms. Rivers followed with a masterful comedic act, but not before gently chiding the audience for its intolerance and urging all to be more open-minded. She rivaled Judy Garland as a gay icon. More significantly, she gave voice to many Jews who had been fettered with that defensive sha-sha “don’t make waves” syndrome.
Not given to facile praise, the late critic Roger Ebert called Ms. Rivers in 2010, “as a woman who will not accept defeat, who will not slow down, who must prove herself over and again. A brave and stubborn woman, smart as a whip, superbly skilled. You want to see what it looks like to rage, rage against the dying of the light? Joan Rivers will not go gentle into that good night.”
An icon whose popularity spanned generations, she was feted on Sunday at a memorial service at Temple Emanu-El that attracted an A-list crowd of people inside the synagogue and thousands of mourners outside on the street.
Joan Rivers was still fighting when that brilliant light dimmed before it died. The talk has ended but the laughter, evoked by aggressive Jewish humor, lingers on.
Joseph Dorinson, a professor of history at Long Island University, writes and lectures frequently about humor.