You know the attention a parakeet gets when it uses a stick to get food? The public looks on and thinks it’s one smart lad. Imagine, with its little bird brain, it can work out that an abandoned stick will enable it to reach whatever it wants for its tea, beyond its normal reach.
The human equivalent? The late comedienne Joan Rivers, who fashioned a tool for survival, personal advancement, and riches beyond the dreams of Croesus, out of a despised human trait: cruelty. Let’s not dance around it, here. Them’s the facts. Not since Vlad the Impaler has anyone else built such a rep based on upfront personal cruelty. Other comedians might make the odd crack about someone famous, but always in the celebs-joshing-celebs mode now owned by misnamed ‘chat’ shows like Graham Norton’s. Nobody else in comedy was downright vicious about other showbiz figures. Most of the pilloried forced a smile. A few didn’t. Elizabeth Taylor, during her obese years, was known to find Rivers’ relentlessly harsh pursuit of her desperately hurtful — like the crack that Taylor’s favourite food was seconds. Boom boom, take it away, Joan.
Rivers worked out early in her career that she could get away with being cruel about other people as long as she was equally harsh about herself. “I have no sex appeal,” she once — accurately — stated, “and it has screwed me up for life. Peeping Toms look in my window and pull down the shade. My gynaecologist examines me by telephone.”
Rivers may have learned to associate comedy with cruelty in her apprentice years with Candid Camera, where her job was to inveigle people into situations that would hold them up to public ridicule — and also to persuade them to allow Candid Camera to broadcast the quips.
That was where she started to write jokes, many of which are in collections of laugh-out-loud humour, despite the fact that the majority of them wouldn’t evoke even a quiet laugh. Take the crack she made, in her 30s, about being presented to the Queen. The joke, told more than once on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, was that, having seen the Queen so often on postage stamps, when Rivers actually met her, she had the urge to lick the back of Her Majesty’s neck. Now, let’s be honest, that’s not a witticism calculated to make you fall off your barstool, although it was better than some of the others, which had a strong flavour of ‘here’s one I wrote earlier.’
“My love life is like a piece of Swiss cheese,” was one of those. “Most of it’s missing, and what’s there stinks.” Some of the ones ‘she wrote earlier’ should have been abandoned before performance, including “I like colonic irrigation, because sometimes you find old jewellery.” WHAT?
And don’t tell me she was a master (or mistress) of timing. Watch the clip, of the Carson show, where she does the joke about licking the Queen. Carson does his level best to cue her and she fumbles it twice before getting it right.
Joan Rivers was significant because she made herself a star, not through great natural talent or looks, but by the constant application of a ferocious determination. Like that other woman who came through the sexist 1950s and built herself into an unequalled TV success, Barbara Walters, Rivers never wasted time on work/life balance, on considering the special gentleness with which her gender supposedly equipped her, or on hiding her ambition. She left track marks on everybody’s face and was unashamed of it.
Carson, one of her best friends in the early days of her career, ended up wearing her track marks. This was a man who had done her many favours by showcasing her talents on his nightly TV show. It wasn’t just that he frequently invited her on as a guest. It was much more than that. He tried her out as a replacement presenter. She succeeded. He then trusted her as his regular sub. That role carries with it an implicit moral obligation not to pull the rug out from under the feet of the person who has given you such an opportunity. Instead, Rivers, — as Carson saw it — briskly double-crossed him when she signed a contract to do a rival chat show on another station. He never spoke to her again. No evidence exists to suggest she cared. The Joan Rivers Show failed on the rival channel. No evidence exists to suggest Carson sympathised.
Rivers had copped on to one of life’s realities: sometimes, being warm, rounded and compassionate stands in the way of women who want to be massively successful in their careers. Whenever she came up against that choice, she went with the career option, right down to, and including, the aftermath of her husband’s death. Edgar Rosenberg had been her executive producer on the show that tanked, and shortly after its cancellation he took his own life. Within what seemed a shockingly short time, Rivers was startling audiences into laughter at his suicide.
“My husband killed himself and it was my fault,” she said. “We were making love and I took the bag off my head.”
Everything was grist to the mill, fuel for the work. “If a joke comes to you, then that’s the time for humour,” she said.
“When my husband committed suicide, there was nothing funny running through my head. But by the next day, I was already starting with close friends to do terrible black humor. That’s how I get through life. God has given us this gift of humour.”
God also gave us decency, restraint, delicacy and the capacity to respect the dead, but Rivers’ point — in fact, the point of her whole life — was that all that soft stuff wouldn’t have got heranywhere. So she never deployed it.
In her early days, she made herself acceptable to audiences by playing on her lack of looks and sexiness. In her final years, she made herself a byword for plastic surgery, and updated her genius for quick and cutting personal attacks into a place on the TV catwalk at premieres, where she savaged the looks, wardrobes, grooming and weight problems of passing movie stars.
Doing that right up to her death, last week at 81, she proved that persistence and resilience beat almost all other human traits when it comes to becoming a household name, multi-millionnaire.
She may not have planned the manner of her death, but it fits neatly with her life, in the sense that it put her on the front pages of the world media in a way that a more routine death would not.
Also, she was unconscious at the time, which is always a good way to die, as she would have been the first to point out.
Rivers could get away with being cruel about other people as long as she was harsh about herself