It’s not often that you feel as if all the laughter in the universe has disappeared. That’s how so many of us — from 80-year-olds to teens — felt when Joan Rivers, pioneering comic, author, red carpet queen, and LGBT icon, died at age 81 on Sept. 4.
Yet, it’s not surprising that Rivers’ funeral was the gayest (in all senses of the word) ever: from the Gay Men’s Chorus singing “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” to speakers telling ribald stories to Joan Rivers impersonators standing outside on the sidewalk.
Rivers, a long-term supporter of gay rights and ordained minister, recently officiated a same-sex wedding at a New York Barnes and Noble, when she was signing copies of her last book “Diary of a Mad Diva.” She raised millions for AIDS groups before it was fashionable.
For decades, Rivers was a fixture in our cultural life. She made us laugh even as we winced at her (and our) poor taste. Boomers remember Rivers, who worked with Guiding Eyes for the Blind and other charities, for her gig as permanent guest host on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Devotees of camp loved it when Rivers, after career setbacks, reemerged as a deliciously campy red carpet fashion inquisitor at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and other events. Her E! program “Fashion Police” and her We reality show “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” became addictions for everyone from straight women to gay men. Even I, a lesbian clueless about fashion, was hooked on Rivers’ fashion barbs.
Fashion victims loved to be zinged by Rivers. “What’s the point of wearing all these dumb costumes if Joan’s not here to rip them apart,” Katy Perry tweeted.
“She once said my tats looked like Michael J. Fox drew them and Stevie Wonder filled them in,” Lena Dunham tweeted.
Rivers had her detractors. Some said she was too abrasive or too mean. “Joan Rivers, a new comedienne of ripening promise … is an unusually bright girl who is overcoming the handicap of a woman comic, looks pretty and blonde and yet manages to make people laugh,” a reviewer condescendingly wrote in the New York Times in 1965.
So many of us loved Rivers, because her humor streamed from herself. It was hard to believe that anyone who was so funny joking about herself was cruel. “Never be afraid to laugh at yourself,” Rivers said. “You could be missing out on the joke of the century.”
The LGBT community has a history of surviving and growing after sustaining loss and oppression from the AIDS epidemic to same-sex marriage bans. A critical way in which we’ve coped with loss and marginalization has been through humor. Many of us who are queer or feminist (gay or straight) adored and respected Rivers because, she, too, suffered loss and oppression in her life. In her era, there were few women comics. To succeed, women comedians have to “work twice as hard as men,” Kathy Griffin said Rivers told her.
Rivers “paved the way for broads like me,” tweeted comedian Wanda Sykes.
“Joan Rivers will always be a pioneer,” tweeted Ellen DeGeneres.
Rivers’ husband Edgar committed suicide. She was left bankrupt after his death, her falling out with Carson and the cancellation of her Fox talk show. As a talented, creative artist, Rivers did what artists do. She dealt with the tragedy by making herself vulnerable – by transforming the sadness and obstacles in her life into comedy.
“After Edgar killed himself, I went out to dinner with Melissa,” Rivers joked. “I looked at the menu and said, ‘If Daddy were here to see these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, where would we have been if we didn’t laugh, Rivers asks in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” Thank you, Joan, for leaving us with so much laughter. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.