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

By | June 5, 2020

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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

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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.