Thanks to Joan Rivers, I knew that Elizabeth Taylor had gained a lot of weight before I really knew who Elizabeth Taylor was.
Taylor was Rivers’ favorite target at the peak of the comedian’s career, as Johnny Carson’s designated Tonight Show guest host during the early and mid 1980s. The mostly retired Taylor — after decades of hard living, ill health, and insane diets — was Rivers’ attention-getting addition to rudimentary your mama’s so fat jokes.
Elizabeth Taylor’s so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin.
Elizabeth Taylor pierced her ears and gravy ran out.
Elizabeth Taylor has more chins than the Chinese telephone directory.
Those jokes haven’t aged well, of course. Not that Rivers — who was 81 years old when she died, days after she stopped breathing during throat surgery — ever watered down her brand of insult comedy. She worked right up until the end, tearing down MTV Video Music Awards and Emmys attendees on E!’s Fashion Police last week. This was her take, for example, on Amber Rose’s nearly bottomless dress at the VMAs: “Amber’s outfit is almost as tacky as Amber’s seat was when she got up at the end of the show.” And on Taryn Manning at the Emmys: “Check the hem. The dress is just like Jackie Chan’s penis. It needs two more inches.”
When isolating her jokes, or even when thinking about her surgeried and injected face, it’s hard to describe why Rivers was — to me, and to so many people — wonderful. But not only was she a pioneer among female comedians, she was a revolutionary figure in comedy as a whole, as well as a cultivator of strange, original talents. Who would have thought red-carpet interviews would someday become an entire industry? Or that a regular QVC presence could be such a benefit to a person’s career? Or that winning Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice could seem like such a legitimate, moving victory?
I was in my early teens when Rivers subbed for Carson on The Tonight Show, and I would watch her with my mother. I can’t remember any of her interviews; they were fun, but it was the monologues we tuned in for. Besides Taylor, Rivers’ favorite target was herself — her sexless marriage, her aging body: “I had a hot flash yesterday so bad it melted my IUD.” Etc. As a middle-schooler in the ’80s, I didn’t question whether it was wrong to talk about other people’s looks and your own in the worst terms imaginable. In fact, she might have been the only comedian at the time who made sense to me.
She was, of course, Carson’s opposite. But his white-bread, Midwestern, sarcastic, flat-toned wit was a perfect complement to Rivers’ Jewish, New York-y, self-interrupting, flagellating screech. If her catchphrase was “Can we talk?” Carson was her perfect listener. She began appearing on his Tonight Show in 1965 — Feb. 17, 1965, she says adoringly in this clip from 1986. And after that first appearance, he recounted to her, “You finished your routine, and you were devastating. And the audience was just falling apart. And you walked over and sat down, and I said, ‘You know, you’re going to be a big star.’”
Carson and Rivers famously fell out when she left the job he’d given her to become his competition, with her own late-night talk show on the brand-new Fox network in the fall of 1986. He claimed he hadn’t found out from her, which hurt him deeply, and he banned her from the show. (Jimmy Fallon finally unbanned Rivers from Tonight, having her on earlier this year.) Rivers’ Fox show was a disaster. My mom and I watched that, too, and would have been more than willing to throw Carson over for her, but it just didn’t work. Its failure led to her lowest point: The suicide of her husband Edgar Rosenberg, and a depressive period of her own. It’s hard not to imagine what would’ve happened if she hadn’t made that decision to head to Fox, and had gotten to take over The Tonight Show.
I met Rivers once, a few years ago. The production company behind her and her daughter’s WE reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? asked me to talk (for free) to them and the show’s producers for an afternoon during the show’s planning stages about what I thought made the best reality television. I said nothing terribly illuminating, I’m sure, but I just wanted to meet Rivers, whom I’d admired for so long. She was lovely — and as earnest about her work as I imagined she would be, especially after having seen the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. The movie is a beautiful portrait, though not a flattering one, and reveals that Rivers was warm, quiet, compulsively hardworking, angry, gifted, and sometimes selfish.
In other words, she was a real person.
Rivers is survived by her daughter, Melissa, her grandson, Cooper, friends, and colleagues. And her fans, who can’t believe we’ll never see her again.