Would the caustic comedian Joan Rivers, who died at age 81 on September 4, have jested about her own sudden illness and unexpected demise? Probably, given her track record as a no-holds barred comedian in the style of Lenny Bruce, and benefiting from relaxed cable TV standards about what is sayable on entertainment programs. Indeed Rivers’s act got progressively grittier over the years. Whereas for over four decades she had been complaining to audiences about “sagging” parts of her anatomy, in the past decade she had shared even more intimate supposed details of her internal organs that some listeners may have felt they could do without. Recent appearances always included razor-sharp references to her age, how she might keel over at any minute, and what she called her “obituary joke” : “When you see ‘Sadie Schwartz, 106: suddenly,’ I think, ‘Sadie Schwartz, 106: About Time.’” Even Rivers’s home furnishings bore a memento mori, with an embroidered cushion on a leather couch in her study reading: DON’T EXPECT PRAISE WITHOUT ENVY UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD.
By deliberately pushing the envelope, knowing that at least overstepping boundaries of taste would result in free publicity, Rivers was in a no-lose situation, or at least that appeared to be her theory. The Anti-Defamation League protested last year after Rivers wisecracked about Project Runway host Heidi Klum on the “Fashion Police” show, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” ADL director Abraham H. Foxman declared in a statement that “it is vulgar and offensive for anybody to use the death of 6 million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust to make a joke, but this is especially true for someone who is Jewish and who proudly and publicly wears her Jewishness on her sleeve.” Mr. Foxman had a point, as a key part of Rivers’s stage persona was as doting mother, albeit an increasingly strident yenta. Mel Brooks has featured artful Nazi spoofs in his humor for decades with impunity, starting long before “The Producers,” and Larry David, in an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” about a contestant from TV’s “Survivor” squabbling with a Holocaust survivor, also escaped censure. Was Rivers’s special offensiveness due to the fact that as an older Jewish woman, she should have been more sensitive? Being a female comedian per se does not mean Holocaust jokes are verboten, since Sarah Silverman indulges in them, again without the same degree of fallout from the ADL.
As part of her expectedly coruscating reply to the controversy, Rivers told “The Hollywood Reporter,” “My husband lost the majority of his family at Auschwitz and I can assure you that I have always made it a point to remind people of the Holocaust through humor.” Atypically she understated the case, as the producer Edgar Rosenberg (1924/1925-1987), who is mainly remembered by Rivers’s fans for his suicide after a series of health setbacks, also personally bore the burden of war years, fleeing from his native Bremerhaven to Denmark and later South Africa. Eventually studying at Cambridge University, Rosenberg was a well-read dynamo who attracted the admiration of discerning showbiz observers such as Variety’s Peter Bart for his managerial skills. A five pack-per-day cigarette habit led to a heart attack and quadruple bypass, with subsequent depression and other woes.
Dealing with these and other life tragedies, Rivers’s approach was always to offer japes, as a sign of life and survival. Not all of her audience were ready or willing to joke about things when she was, and in the age of TMZ and the like, it was as senseless to expect nuanced political analysis from Rivers about the recent Gaza crisis as it was in previous years and crises from Jackie Mason. Stand-up comics simply cannot offer the subtlety of a Raymond Aron in such matters, and are asked about them by voracious media outlets only because a big-mouthed, quotable reply is guaranteed.
Born Joan Molinsky in New York in 1933, in memoirs she made clear that the struggles for a female Jewish comedian of her era were massive and constant. Obscurity and a faded career always beckoned, just as one American Jewish comedian whom Rivers dated, Milt Kamen (1921-1977), was esteemed by Mel Brooks, Groucho Marx and Woody Allen, no less, but today is largely forgotten. The acclaimed 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” shows her in constant motion, determined never to let this happen to her. If comments closer to schoolyard insults than examples of wit would result, ensuing media coverage offered publicity that sold tickets.
So yes, in all probability Rivers would have joked about her own illness and demise, as she aggressively fat-shamed Elizabeth Taylor, the singer Adele, and other targets, at the risk of being disliked. Rivers was not afraid of being disliked, even when a clearly upset Jerry Lewis reacted with rage to her suggestion that his career benefited by the charitable telethons for which he was famous. Quite possibly Rivers relied on the abiding gratitude felt by audiences for whatever laughter she could provide in a grim world.