Joan Rivers and the burden of combat

In 1968, the associated mink ranchers of the Great Lakes region banded together and decided that they needed to find an ad agency that could restore public opinion on mink coats, to which young leftists of the 60s were ethically opposed. The result was an almost three decade-long print ad campaign for Blackglama — a series of greyscale portraits of contemporary divas, all wearing black mink coats. In stark, bold text above each diva, every poster asks: “What becomes a Legend most?” The implicit answer to each ad’s question, obviously, is Blackglama mink fur (the1968exhibit.org).

But when Joan Rivers asks a similar question on the cover of her third (and what people believed at the time to be her final) album, What Becomes A Semi-Legend Most? the answer is no longer so clear. Rivers’ parody of the Blackglama ad is obvious. She wears a black fur coat and gazes seductively over her bare shoulder into the lens, putting her diva on full display. The font on the cover is the same as the original, with the word “semi” penned in pink above it. The insertion of “semi” in the title points us towards the conclusion that Rivers herself is the answer to the question, and not her fur. But, curiously, the question was not revised to ask “who” becomes a “semi-Legend.” The question’s subject continues to be “what.”

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This album cover is perhaps a perfect representation of Joan Rivers’ comedy. For one, it embraces the ad campaign’s controversy and puts Rivers at the center of it; by the 1980s, PETA had launched an aggressive anti-fur campaign, and fur-owners were being splattered with red paint in the street (Rivers herself was the victim of a paint throwing in 1997). And on the theoretical side — which will be the primary focus of this essay — the cover, particularly the deceptively significant amount of work done by the modifier “semi,” makes “Joan Rivers” as persona and Joan Rivers as performer into entities that are both separate and inseparable, self-aware and not, right and wrong, diva and abject, human and object. As her career developed through the 70s and her celebrity status increased, Rivers became increasingly interested in the willful deployment of these paradoxes for the purposes of inventing a specific relationship with her audience. This allowed her to generate disruptive material that broke ground not only for women in stand-up, but for everybody in stand-up.

John Limon in Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America proposes that in stand-up, the performer initiates a process of “vacillating infantilism,” where “The progress is to convert Audience to Law for the purpose of winning the Law back as Audience” through delivery of premises and punchlines. In Limon’s theoretical setting, the performer becomes “the resurrection of your father as your child,” acting both as a figure of authority standing above the audience and a figure appealing to the audience’s authority to decide what is and isn’t a joke. Rivers, however, does something slightly different which subverts this model: through a tactical restructuring of the Audience/Law and performer dynamic, Rivers instead embodies the resurrection of one’s Jewish mother as their Jewish child.

As opposed to the father, the mother, and particularly the Jewish mother, intentionally picks fights with her/their children in order to invite play. This is exactly the route that Rivers follows in her act, especially as her rise to fame offered her more opportunities to take calculated risks with her audience. In her monologue on The Carol Burnett Show in 1974, Rivers asks the women in the front row to hold up their rings so that she can test her theory that first wives have less expensive rings than second wives. She’s right the first time, but on her second guess she’s proven wrong:

Rivers: [pointing] First wife. Yes! First wife.
Woman in audience: No, I –
Rivers: [taking woman’s hand] Well then you must be on welfare [big laugh].

The maternal position Rivers takes here is clear, judging women in the audience on the quality of their rings and berating them when they aren’t up to par. But also, in the face of her premise just having been disproven, Rivers doubles down and invents a reality

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Joan Rivers on the Carol Burnett Show, 1974

(the audience member being on welfare) where she is still able to be correct, generating the punchline of the joke. Rivers never tries to reach a state of agreement with the audience. Rather, she always chooses to remain in the position of playful combatant.

 

By the 1980s, Rivers had this technique perfected and began testing how high of a threshold her audience could have for tolerating falsehoods. On her 1983 album, Rivers is constantly marshaling her audience’s reactions — her go-to lines are “oh, grow up!,” “oh, shush!,” (both evocative of a mother talking down) and “can we talk about this?” (a child asking up). Rivers starts her act by asserting that Vegas entertainer Liberace is homosexual, proclaiming:

Let me tell you how I know who is gay and who is not gay: I read the National Inquirer [laugh] Don’t – don’t you read the Inquirer? [mixed response, someone calls out “no”] [Rivers gasps] [more laughs] Who said no!? Are you kidding!?

This gesture is genius, and it goes a long way. Rivers is constructing a reality where her persona’s worldview is informed by the National Inquirer, a publication that is notorious for propagating sensationalized gossip as fact. By asking the audience if they too read the Inquirer, she is opening the opportunity for the audience to self-reflect and realize that they either don’t read or at least don’t trust the authority of the Inquirer. When even a tiny minority of the audience responds negatively, Rivers latches onto the dissent instead of ignoring it. In fact, Rivers needed somebody in the audience to dissent for her joke to work. Rivers even calls back to the Inquirer later in the set to save a premise that begins falling flat: “You know who marries rich? Nurses and stewardesses. [Pauses] W- Oh, oh, listen to me! See, you don’t read the Inquirer — there was an article in the National Inquirer [laugh].”

When the audience seems unwilling to agree, Rivers reminds them that her persona’s logic is flawed; they shouldn’t worry about whether or not Rivers is right, because of course she isn’t. The audience’s role is to laugh and play as a child with their mother and vice versa, not to sit back and quietly assess the veracity of Rivers’ statements. Unfortunately, this is a role that audience members can only feel comfortable with for so long.

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In order to stay relevant in the dusk of her career, Rivers unfortunately had to venture into genuinely hurtful and cruel territories, becoming more irate and less nimble in her comedic style. After all, playing the contrarian is a difficult task. Offensive jokes implicitly normalize themselves upon successful delivery, and thus, each new joke the performer writes is only valuable if it outdoes its precedents. And of course, the longer the contrarian stays in the spotlight, the more criticism and backlash she must endure. The first line of River’s 2013 album Don’t Start With Me is “Just lighten the fuck up. These are just jokes, you assholes.”

Curiously, this is almost the exact same sentiment of Rivers’ National Inquirer line in 1983, but thirty years later, she can no longer afford to be layered or nuanced. In her act, she says that Mexicans are universally ugly, Haitians shouldn’t have been dug out of the rubble of the 2010 earthquake, blind people are selfish, Chinese women brought anal intercourse to America, the list goes on. Her old mantras “oh, grow up” and “can we talk about this?” changed to the sharper, more exasperated “it’s just!…” Even to the most generous eye, Rivers’ persona no longer seems like that of the combatant Jewish mother or grandmother who ultimately means well; rather, she comes off as somebody who can’t tolerate anything different than herself, who is furious at the world for not supporting her right to be intolerant.

After having genuinely become a diva in her own rite, Rivers’ persona and personhood became fused together in a way that became increasingly difficult for audiences to separate. Of course to say that the “real” Joan Rivers ever genuinely held the beliefs she purported to have on stage would be grossly unfair, but her appearances on reality TV shows and her incendiary off-handed comments to paparazzi didn’t help. When reporters asked her if she thought she’d ever live to see a gay president, she snapped back “We already have it with Obama, so let’s just calm down. And you know Michelle is a tranny.” If she’d said this on stage, there’s a chance it would have worked. But for her to say this alone to a cameraman on the front stoop of her apartment speaks to the extent that she felt like she couldn’t back down from her role as combatant. To let her guard down, to resign to get along with society, would be an admission of defeat.

When Rivers screams at us to “just lighten the fuck up,” this is the deeper implication of her plea. More than ever, she continued to need her audience to understand the role that they were supposed to be playing, and yet her audience became either more passively voyeuristic or more genuinely offended.

In her documentary A Piece of Work, a man in Wisconsin heckles Rivers for starting a joke about how she wishes her children were disabled. While the documentary depicts the scene as one of the many trials and tribulations of playing casinos in small-town America, their interaction was more than that. In essence, the man in the audience saw an incredibly wealthy and privileged entertainer selfishly make the plight of raising children with disabilities into a joke. By interrupting, in essence he was demanding her to stop in her tracks and acknowledge that disabilities are as real as they are tragic.

Rivers accomplishes two opposite things simultaneously. Keeping her combative persona up, she snaps back “I happen to have a deaf mother, you stupid ass. Let me tell you what comedy is about.” How perfect: Joan Rivers, overtly reminding us in the moment of her status as “daughter,” reprimands her dissenter as a mother, putting him down and explaining the idea of comedy to him, while also implicitly consoling him by relating to his struggle.

Our mother is our daughter. Rivers’ persona is maintained but for a moment becomes earnest. And, as she’s always managed, Rivers wins her audience back.

 

Sources:

France, Lisa. "Joan Rivers Jokes Obama Is Gay, First Lady Is Transgender." CNN. Cable News Network, 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Horrigan, Brian. ""What Becomes a Legend Most?" Ad Campaign." The 1968 Exhibit. The Minnesota Historical Society, 17 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Dir. Ricki Stern. Perf. Joan Rivers. Break Thru Films, 2 July 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

Limon, John. Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.

Rivers, Joan. Don't Start With Me. Entertainment One, 2013. Web.

Rivers, Joan. What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? Geffen Records, 1983. Web.

 

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