Gina Barreca: Joan Rivers: Stiletto Wit, Brave, Honest

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.

I once opened for Joan Rivers.

She was coming in from New York to do a fundraiser, and the house was packed. I was there to warm up the crowd and introduce her.

As somebody who had spent her life working on women’s comedy, Rivers was my idol.

I could recite several of her older sets by heart. (“I have friend who made a mistake with her medications. She confused her birth control pills with her Valium. She has nine kids but she doesn’t give a s—.”)

Eager as I was to meet Rivers and as devoted as I was to her work, I was entirely unprepared for how tiny she was.

You could have put her in a Happy Meal. But she was larger than life, and a woman’s life, especially when Rivers first started working, needed to be let out a little.

So, after listening to my short talk and introduction, she came up to me and said, “I hate you. You’re funnier than I am.” She said “I hate you” with such natural affection and authentic appreciation that it was like getting a big hug and a bouquet of roses. Joan Rivers announcing “I hate you” made me feel loved.

A comic whose act was built around her stiletto sharp wit rather than, for example, storytelling, which was far more acceptable for women comics, she nevertheless was warm and generous to many people.

A friend, Robin Kall Homonoff, tells a story about how she was walking to her car after seeing Rivers’ show and Rivers made her limo slow down to make sure my friend arrived safely. Not only that: Rivers insisted she flash her lights once she got into the car, just to prove she was safe.

That’s a nice lady. What she said about people on the red carpet might not have always been kind, but that was her shtick and her routine.

But only nice people take the time to make sure somebody who’s a little nervous is escorted safely to her vehicle.

Niamh Cunningham, a former student of mine who went on to do a graduate degree at Yale, tells about how Rivers provided the best experience of her master’s program: “Writing on contemporary female humor as well as the domestic humor of post-WWII America, I found a piece Joan wrote for the Hollywood Reporter.

It was packed with advice and wisdom, and Joan’s love for her work was evident.

I went straight to YouTube and started watching old videos of her early work. I couldn’t get enough; anything I could find, I watched. I didn’t get another page written, but instead watched videos late into the night … even though I knew I had to get up early the next morning. I got two or three hours of sleep, tops, but I woke up smiling. It reminded me why women’s humor matters.”

Rivers simultaneously embraced and subverted femininity. She was so funny and so fast at being funny that she made the toughest guys in the business laugh. In many ways Joan Rivers was so feminine, she was like a female impersonator: she took the conventions and trappings of traditional femininity, the emphasis on glamour, jewelry, make-up, heels and the rest of the razzle-dazzle, to an extreme.

But she used that extreme to take down some boundaries entirely. She made fun of male and female sexuality and ridiculed pervasive notions of beauty even as she embodied them. Her “Can we talk?” got women talking, about the absurdities of our own lives, our own fears and our own worries.

She was both fiercely intelligent and painfully ambitious. She was filled with anxiety, and yet her unflinching willingness to lead us into the shadowy parts of life, disappointment, loneliness and death, and shine the light of humor on them was an act of bravery.

Rivers showed us just how much trouble a small woman with a big mouth could make, and just how funny an honest woman could be.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular

To Top