Joan Rivers passed away this week at the age of 81, and there’s been no lack of conversation about the controversial comedienne. If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, it’s been filled with comments about Rivers, some remembering her as a hugely influential comic that broke gender barriers and others dismissing her and focusing entirely on her more outspoken later years that often became more caricature than performer.
Dismissing her talents completely is the sign of someone devoid of an understanding of a cultural heritage older than “The Simpsons.” Rivers could certainly be shocking and bawdy and, yes, even unpleasant to the point where you wonder where the joke was, and her style of humor wasn’t necessarily for all tastes. But there’s no question she was an influential cultural icon, one of the first major female stand-up comics, one who always worked fearlessly without regard for more delicate sensibilities. She had an unstoppable work ethic as well, pausing only for occasional trips to the plastic surgeon.
She was also a heck of a lot more than an insult comic. She was an actress, a writer, a talk show host and more – and her cult media credentials are significantly beyond “That brash lady who fought with Jay Leno.” Below are twelve genres she worked in that may not have had that cultural impact that her stand-up did, but are no less remarkable as an example of the talent she offered.
ONCE UPON A COFFEE HOUSE (1965)
Before she became a solo act, Rivers was part of a trio. With Jim Connell and Jake Holmes (previously half of the folk comedy duo Allen & Grier), Rivers was part of Jim, Jake and Joan (I have no idea where they got the name), whose act in 1964 warranted inclusion in the Fred Berney-produced folk musical ONCE UPON A COFFEE HOUSE, on DVD as HOOTENANNY A GO-GO. The act features the trio doing a fake newscast, and while it’s a certainly dated, you can see evidence of her stage presence.
2. Surreal Drama
THE SWIMMER (1969)
Rivers doesn’t get a lot of screen time in Frank Perry’s fantastic adaptation of John Cheever’s short story about a middle-aged man played by Burt Lancaster, who works his way home by swimming in the pools of all of his friends. But she’s still a definite presence, and seeing her as a pleasant, gracious party hostess may throw off those expecting her to just act brashly towards every other character on screen.
3. Social Issue Talk Show
THAT SHOW (1968-1969)
Long before her late-night feuds made headlines, Rivers helmed a very different type of talk show, one less about celebrities promoting their latest output and more about discussing social issues of the time. Shows about schooling, drugs and nudism (!) were common on the daytime show, which often featured notable guests and long-form discussions and a smattering of humor. Rivers starts the show with a little bit of stand-up, but soon settles in to be a pleasant hostess, someone willing to discuss complicated issues and listen to different viewpoints without getting hostile or defensive. It’s a great way to see Rivers being comfortable as herself, long before she became the Joan Rivers Character many saw her as in her later years. You can watch a bunch of complete episodes here. Could you imagine the likes of “The View” having someone like Neil Postman on to talk about education for a half hour?
4. Children’s Education Cartoon
THE ADVENTURES OF LETTERMAN (1971-1977)
“The Electric Company” was “Sesame Street”’s cooler, hipper older brother, a show that put Morgan Freeman into the households of kids all cross the country on a daily basis and one featuring a variety of nifty segments that still manage to entertain today. One of these segments was “The Adventures of Letterman,” a series of 60 (!) cartoon shorts involving replacing letters to form different words, animated by John and Faith Hubley in their inimitable style. The voices were nothing to sneeze at, either, as the duels in the cartoons were fought by the Letterman (Gene Wilder) and the “bad” Spell Binder (Zero Mostel), making the “Letterman” segments a bit of a PRODUCERS reunion. (Or a RHINOCEROS reunion, if you’re feeling pretentious.) Rivers supplied the narration, her raspy tones perfectly setting up the overwrought comedy of the situations.
5. Black Comedy TV-Movie
THE GIRL MOST LIKELY TO… (1973)
Rivers isn’t in Lee Philips’ made-for-television flick, but she co-wrote the screenplay, and there’s no question that her fingerprints are all over it. Stockard Channing stars as college girl who gets plastic surgery after a car accident, making her significantly more attractive, and takes revenge on those who bullied her back when she wasn’t so pretty – if that doesn’t say “Joan Rivers,” nothing does. Often regarded as one of the best made-for-TV movies of the era, and justifiably so, THE GIRL MOST LIKELY TO… features great performances, a witty script and a gleefully sinister theme that hasn’t aged a bit, and you can see echoes of it in the likes of HEATHERS and MEAN GIRLS. It’s the perfect Rivers film for people that think they can’t stand the woman herself.
6. Pregnant Man Comedy
RABBIT TEST (1978)
Rivers made her directorial debut – and finale – with this tale of the first pregnant man, played by Billy Crystal. The Mel Brooks-ish flick certainly isn’t afraid to offend, but many of the jokes (mostly based on weight or religion) haven’t really aged well. It’s not very good! But it’s certainly very Joan, and in the hands of a more experienced director, the screenplay could have conceivably been turned into a sub-AIRPLANE! – or at least a sub-AIRPLANE II.
7. Political Satire
UNCLE SCAM (1981)
By 1981, Rivers was enough of a name to warrant making cameos as “herself,” and that’s exactly what she does in this mostly-forgotten zany comedy about federal agents. Rivers does get to do a few minutes of her act, about how women let themselves go after marriage and getting plastic surgery done. How the heck did Rivers end up in this? Well, the co-writer/director/producer Tom Pileggi helped fund RABBIT TEST. Mostly, however, he sold real estate. It shows.
THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN (1984)
Nobody who has ever filmed a scene with the Muppets is an entirely bad person. This is a proven fact. Similarly, nobody who has ever willingly hung out with Donald Trump is an entirely good person. The jury’s still out on Donald Grump.
LES PATTERSON SAVES THE WORLD (1987)
Joan Rivers, President! Rivers and Barry Humphries character Dame Edna are a natural match – they’re both bawdy, insulting, and just don’t give a crap about what you think about them. Rivers turned up on Dame Edna’s talk show, which isn’t surprising, as she turned up on just about every talk show known to man. But she also got a chance to play the president of the United States in the Dame Edna vehicle LES PATTERSON SAVES THE WORLD, as the commander-in-chief that hires the titular character (also Humphries) to do the titular thing (there’s a bioterror attack affecting the world’s toilet seats), – with the help of Edna.
10. Science Fiction Satire
Actually, you’re probably aware of this one.
11. Ill-Conceived Biopic
TEARS & LAUGHTER: THE JOAN AND MELISSA RIVERS STORY (1994)
Let’s say your husband commits suicide. What do you do? Mourn in silence? Set up a fund in his name and promote non-profit organizations related to suicide? Or star, with your daughter, in an overwrought biopic about your lives?
The idea of playing yourself in a TV-movie biopic isn’t completely unusual – an eclectic batch of people have done so, including Howard Stern, Ann Jillian, Marie Osmond, Jackie Robinson and Shirley MacLaine – but TEARS & LAUGHTER features the dubious distinction of having a mother and daughter scenes like the discovery that Edgar Rosenberg, Joan’s husband and Melissa’s father, was dead. Rivers does, however, get to go off on aforementioned RABBIT TEST funder Tom Pileggi for not going to Rosenberg’s funeral.
The idea is unrepentantly tacky, and TEARS & LAUGHTER feels like such a bizarre, fictionalized therapy session that it manages to move beyond tacky to entertaining, then back to tacky, and then so ridiculous that it becomes entertaining again. It’s almost as though Rivers was playing the most straight-faced, gallows-humored, self-depricating joke ever conceived.
12. Workout Video
JOAN RIVERS SHOPPING FOR FITNESS (1996)
1996 is a bit late to catch on to the parody fitness craze, as similarly comic “fitness” videos by the likes of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Linnea Quigley and Larry “Bud” Melman had already been languishing in bargain bins for years, but that didn’t stop Rivers, who went to a mall, surrounded herself with women of varying shapes and sizes, and put together a “workout” video that looks like it was shot in a slow afternoon. The rap, however, is something to behold.
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