​Joan Rivers: An appreciation


An undated portrait of comedienne Joan Rivers, taken by photographer Kenn Duncan.

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts/Billy Rose Theatre Division

The life and career of Joan Rivers has inspired reflection and gratitude in other women of humor, like our own Nancy Giles:

Do yourself a favor and read "Enter Talking," Rivers' poignant and hilarious story of her early years as chubby Joan Molinsky, with a beautiful sister and a bucket of insecurities.

She married (because a girl her age should get married) and divorced soon after, moving back in with her parents . . . totally defeated but for a dream that she dared not speak: to be some kind of entertainer, in spite of being told again and again (including by her parents, after her act flopped at the synagogue) that she was absolutely without talent.

She performed in church basements and way-off Broadway. She wrote jokes, bought jokes, changed her name -- at one point even billing herself as "Pepper January, Comedy with Spice!"

And through her failures, Joan Rivers found her comedic voice.

"I had found the key," she wrote. "My comedy would flow from that poor, vulnerable schlepp, Joan Molinsky, the nerd I felt sorry for." This was in the '50s and '60s, when being a stand-up comedian was about as respectable as being a stripper.

Being a female comedian was simply unheard of.

But she persevered.

Her life began, she said, one night in 1965, when as a last-minute replacement she made her first appearance on "The Tonight Show," and made Johnny laugh, really laugh, wiping his eyes and declaring, "You're gonna be a star!"

Joan Rivers' face was so expressive, and so wonderfully goofy, I wish she'd left it alone. But that was her choice, and (to her credit) she never lied about her cosmetic surgeries -- using them, too, as material, with lines like, "I wish I had a twin, so I could know what I'd look like without plastic surgery." Or "My breasts are so low now I can have a mammogram and a pedicure at the same time."

But, as crass as her humor could be, she was a classy lady, with fine tastes and exquisite manners, who regularly sent thank-you notes and flowers to co-workers. And talk about a work ethic -- at 81, she was still on stage, trying out new jokes.

She was an inspiration.

Like Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields, she helped dispel the myth that woman aren't funny.

Someone once said, "If you can see it, you can be it." Thanks to the trailblazers like Joan Rivers, generations of funny girls can "see it," and be funny on their own terms.

We stand on their shoulders, gratefully.