Thursday, September 04, 2014

Joan Rivers (1933-2014)

I became aware of Joan Rivers as I did most celebrities as a child; she was on TV. It didn’t matter if they were a movie star or a television star, a comedian or rock star. I saw them on TV. Rivers was a TV presence. I knew she was a comedian, but I never seemed to catch her act when I was young. Today I know why.

Word came today from River’s daughter and business partner in some endeavors, Melissa that the comedy legend had passed away at the age of 81. The television host went into cardiac arrest during a medical procedure on September 3. She had been rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York after experiencing complications during throat surgery at New York Medical Clinic on August 28. Accounts on what had occurred had been vague, but Melissa updated fans with a statement today after her mother’s death. “She passed today surrounded by family and close friends,” Melissa continued, “My mother’s greatest pleasure in life was to make people laugh.”

Although my own personal experience with the comedian was peripheral in my youth—with her performance as Dot Matrix in the Mel Brooks “Star Wars” skewering “Spaceballs” comprising most of my knowledge of her—I would later in life come to appreciate her contribution to the entertainment industry as a whole. Rivers was the first female to sit in the host chair of “The Tonight Show”, having filled in on several occasions for longtime host Johnny Carson. It was long assumed that Rivers was being groomed to replace Carson when she was offered her own late night program on another network. Her show failed, and the incident went down in the annals of the dramatic late night history as resulting in NBC “banning” the comedian from appearing on any of their shows for multiple decades. On a recent appearance on “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon”, Rivers down played the history as water under the bridge.

Certainly, Rivers didn’t let any one network hold her down. In the 90s, she enjoyed a resurgence of popularity hosting Red Carpet ceremonies before big award shows like The Oscars. Her biting commentary on the fashion employed at such events lead to her co-hosting gig with her daughter on the show “Fashion Police”.  She often appeared as herself in movies and television mocking her own television persona. Her guest appearance on the television series Louie as herself resulted in one of the lauded series’ best episodes.

She may have marginalized herself in some people’s minds with several personal signatures. Her loud, raspy New York accent turned many off to her comedy, to their loss. The reason I’d never seen her act as a kid is because she was unabashedly bawdy and brash on stage. She was a lady with a foul mouth and proud of it. She developed a couple of catch phrases throughout her career, working the phrases “What a tramp!” and “Can we talk?” into her act even through the end. Her many turns under the plastic surgery knife placed her at the center of many vanity jokes, often her own.

Rivers worked the stand-up circuit to the very end. Her dedication to her craft was captured in the fascinating 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”. The doc is perhaps the single best portrait of the mindset of a stand-up comedian. It shows the obsessive personality it takes to be at the top of that craft and it illustrates the brilliance of Rivers as both a comedic mind and performer. The past month has been a rough one for the comedy world. Rest in peace, Joan.

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