Joan Rivers: Can We Talk About The Funny Woman Who Scared The Men?

Entertainment | June 8, 2020

Joan Rivers on 'The Hollywood Palace.' Airdate: February 5, 1966. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

The successful comedian, talk show host, and saleswoman Joan Rivers was revered by her comedy peers for her cutting sense of humor and for trailblazing attitude when it came to making a place for women on stage. With a five decades-long career, Rivers seamlessly blended her own caustic style with observations about marriage, motherhood, and celebrity. She took her act from Greenwich Village to the stages of Las Vegas while refusing to take guff from anyone and proving herself to be an inspiration for countless comedians.

Comedy is no job for a shrinking violet -- particularly for a woman in what was then a man's field. Rivers was funny, and witty, and extremely smart -- but she was also tough. She owned the stage, and you didn't want to be a heckler in her sights. Nor, as a comedian, would you want to even try to go on after her high-energy, rapid-fire act. As Chris Rock would later observe, "No man ever said, 'Yeah, I want to go on after Joan.'"

Her early sets were full of self-deprecating material

source: ny times

Rivers got her start in the 1950s as Joan Rosenberg, a contemporary of Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. She performed alongside them in small clubs in New York City but failed to bring about a similar following. At the time her act, honed in Greenwich dives and underpopulated cafes, was full of self-deprecating material, but she says that after seeing Lenny Bruce perform she realized that the most profound material came from being truthful to herself. Rosenberg may have changed her name to Rivers but her material quickly turned to hard hitting, coarse observations about anything that entered her line of sight.

While performing at Second City in Chicago in 1961 Rivers developed the character of “Rita,” a man-hungry woman that allowed Rivers to explore the sexual mores of the era, and while that was great for her act she says that the most important thing she learned in Chicago was self reliance. At the time the Second City comics were very cerebral and they looked down on Rivers for going for laughs rather than an intellectual win. She explained:

The whole Second City intellectual snobbery made me furious - their contempt for comics in general, their scorn for me in particular because I had actually played strip joints.

She was abrasive, obnoxious, hysterical in an era when women were pressured to be appealing marriage material

source: vogue

Rivers finally broke into the mainstream in her first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1965. Introduced as a “girl writer” Rivers brought her acerbic performance style to the masses, telling jokes about her mother trying to marry her off and a driver running over her wig who apologized for killing her dog. Soon enough, she was a household name.

It helps that Rivers and Carson had such a great onscreen chemistry, she appeared on the show eight more times that year to cement her status as the top female comedian of the era. She continued appearing on The Tonight Show throughout the ‘70s and even guest hosted whenever Carson was on vacation. In these instances she toned down her cutting style and fell back on her previous work that was filled with self deprecation. That may sound like a cop out but Rivers was canny enough to know what would get over with the national audience and would placate guests, rather than scare them off.

Rivers believes that she was invited to guest host so many times because she was a woman and not seen as a threat to replace Carson. Even so, when she was offered her own late night talk show in 1986 she was shut out of Carson’s life. Rivers believed she was given the cold shoulder because Carson felt that he had a hand in her success:

I stuck around for 18 years. And they finally offered me my own late-night show. The first person I called was Johnny, and he hung up on me -- and never, ever spoke to me again. And then denied that I called him. I couldn’t figure it out. I would see him in a restaurant and go over and say hello. He wouldn’t talk to me… I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his.

Rivers will always be remembered for her unique rapid fire delivery

source: ny times

Whether you’ve traced the trajectory of Rivers’ career or you only know her from her later-in-life appearances on E!, you can't forget her take-no-prisoners style of delivery. All of her jokes were tossed out with the fire of a borscht belt comedian and they were always up to date. Her work was irreverent and all she cared about was getting a laugh and being true to herself. Rivers believes that even though her jokes were innocuous they still hit hard because she was saying what no one else would:

I was breaking new comedy ground with talk about women’s intimate experiences and feelings, with jokes like, ‘I have no boobs. I went to nurse my daughter. She sucked on my shoulder. I moved her to the breast and she lost four pounds.’

With “can we talk" and Heidi Abromowitz, Rivers created two of her most long running bits

source: slate

We don’t often think about Joan Rivers as a comedian with a catchphrase, as she didn't have the bit-recycling tendencies that afflict other comics. But she did have two staples that defined her through the decades.

In 1984, Rivers published The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz, a collection of jokes about her made up school chum whom the comedian initially brought up on The Tonight Show. According to Rivers, Abromowitz was a sexual beast even during their formative years. By creating the bawdy character of Abromowitz, Rivers was free to paint herself as a kind of virtuous wall flower. The book sold half a million hardcover copies and was just one of Rivers’ many literary successes.

“Can we talk” was another bit that found its way into Rivers’ set and never went away. Dressed in a demure dress and pearls Rivers would get on stage and dish about the current culture, always by starting out this gossipy section of her show with “can we talk?” She followed the open question with zingers about everyone from Donatella Versace, “That skin! She looks like something you’d hang off your door in Africa,” to Charlton Heston, “He told us, ‘I got Alzheimer’s.’ Surprise! He’s been wearing his wig sideways for 19 years.”

Rivers rebuilt her empire following a complete financial collapse

source: canada.com

Many people aren’t able to build a fortune once in their lives, let alone twice. Rivers came back from total ruin following the cancellation of her talk show and the suicide of her second husband to completely rebuild her brand into that of a brassy comedian who also happened to be a camp style icon. With products on QVC, self-help books, and her standup to keep her going, she continued to be a trailblazer for women in their 60, 70s, and 80s. Even while she was performing on a weekly basis she was able to build a billion dollar brand from her snarky pop culture comments and the product line that she never stopped selling.

She remains one of the most influential comedians ever

source: the independent

There is no comedian or performer today who hasn’t been touched in some way by the work of Joan Rivers. When she passed away in 2014 comedians came out of the woodwork to tip their hats to her take-no-prisoners style of comedy and her thoughtfulness as a human being. Chris Rock told The Hollywood Reporter

Joan Rivers is one of the greatest stand-up comedians to ever live. She's better than [Don] Rickles. She's one of the best female stand-ups to ever live. No man ever said, 'Yeah, I want to go on after Joan.' No, Joan Rivers closed the show every night… She was the hippest comedian from the time she started to the day she died. So don't put Joan Rivers in a box, because she's like Mount Rushmore.

David Letterman remembered her for her intestinal fortitude:

Talk about guts — she would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just where you would have to swallow pretty hard … but it was hilarious … the force of her comedy was overpowering.

And Paul Reubens made sure that no one forgot how sweet she was:

Joan gets so much grief for being abrasive, but she's a wonderful, great, loyal friend. That's why I never roast her. I can't be funny or mean to her, I never feel it.

Tags: Comedians | Joan Rivers | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Standup Comedy | What Did She Do?...

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.