Over the course of her nearly 50-year career, Rivers rummaged through, flipped over and laughed at all the facets of being a woman — from the ’60s-era pressure to marry to the reality of aging in a youth-obsessed business — without ever succumbing to the expectations of what a woman stand-up comedian was “supposed” to sound like.
“Every woman in comedy is indebted to her,” Amy Poehler, “Saturday Night Live” veteran, said upon Rivers’ death Thursday at the age of 81. “She was there at the beginning and funny to the end.”
The path Rivers helped carve leads us straight to female stand-up powerhouses such as Kathy Griffin, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, all of whom are as fearless in their humor, and whom they direct it toward, as Rivers was.
But when Rivers began her stand-up career in the late ’50s, that brazenness was unheard of — for women, at least.
“I was talking about having an affair with a married professor and that wasn’t a thing a nice Jewish girl talked about,” Rivers told author Yael Kohen in Kohen’s book, “We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.”
“I was talking about my mother, desperate to get my sister and me married. I was talking about my gay friend Mr. Phyllis, and you just didn’t talk about that. It sounds so tame and silly now, but my act spoke to women who weren’t able to talk about things.”
Initially, Rivers wanted to be an actress, and took up temp work while she pursued her goal. But when a fellow secretary pointed out that she could get paid for all the jokes she was landing around the office, Rivers tried her hand at comedy.
“I had no idea what I was doing. The white men were doing ‘mother-in-law’ and ‘my wife’s so fat …’ jokes,” Rivers recalled in a 2012 Hollywood Reporter essay. “When I went onstage, that just didn’t feel right. So I just said, ‘Let me talk about my life.'”
She wasn’t alone: George Carlin, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby — classic comedians who were then on the rise — all mined their personal lives for laughs. But although they were “coming up at the same time” as she was, and had similar instincts about humor, Rivers still didn’t quite fit in.
“I never was one of the guys,” Rivers wrote in THR. “I was never asked to go hang out; I never thought about it until later. They would all go to the Stage Delicatessen afterward and talk. I never got to go uptown and have a sandwich with them. So, even though I was with them, I wasn’t with them.”
And maybe all the better for it. Once she got her big break in 1965 on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” Rivers made a name for herself as a woman who would talk frankly and freely about what that meant. The female body, her sex life, the politics of dating and relationships — everything was fair game, and she saw no need in putting anything delicately.
A 1967 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” might seem dated with its references to the single life, but Rivers’ indignation at the disparity between men and women is righteously honest (and, honestly, not that out of place with today).
“The girl has to be the one that’s bright, and pretty, and intelligent, a good sport — ‘Howard Johnson’s again, hooray, hooray!'” Rivers sarcastically pantomimed to the audience’s delight.
“It just kills me! A girl, you’re 30 years old, you’re not married, you’re an old maid. A man, he’s 90 years old, he’s not married, he’s a catch. It’s a whole different thing, isn’t that so?” she asked, as the audience applauded.
That chatty style made Rivers an obvious pick for her own talk show, and she proved it as Carson’s guest host and frequent stand-in on “Tonight.” It was there, as one People magazine critic proclaimed, that she could be “the bitchy queen of late night whose humorous bark left bite marks.”
After shifting perceptions through Carson’s show, Rivers stepped out on her own in 1986 with “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.” The program only lasted for eight months, but it nonetheless broke the rules; Rivers was the first woman to command her own late night talk show, and is still to this day one of the few women who’ve broken into late night TV’s notorious boys club.
“You have to be extraordinarily strong without them seeing you be that,” Rivers told CNN of her experience in late night in 2013. “You’re a lion tamer. You have to be in total command, but you still have to be feminine, and you still have to be funny, and you still have to be inquisitive — it’s a very tough thing, and it’s tough for women because you don’t expect a woman to take control. Still.”
But they are. From Chelsea Handler, who’s ending a top run on E! to build something new at Netflix; to Schumer, who just earned her first Emmy nod for her Comedy Central show; to media titans like Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg — the women who followed Rivers haven’t all been as controversial, but they have all shown traits of her dogged persistence.
Kathy Griffin is perhaps one of the most shining examples. Like Rivers, Griffin has a talent for nailing celebrities to the wall with a smile, while simultaneously flaying herself. Nowhere was that more evident than her Emmy-winning reality show, “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,” a self-deprecating examination of how Griffin was trying and failing to climb the Hollywood ladder. It’s not hard to imagine that if Rivers had been born a few decades later, she would’ve made a similar show. (After all, Rivers kept working hard right up until her passing, starring in reality shows with her daughter, Melissa, and gleefully torturing celebrities on E!’s “Fashion Police.”)
Reflecting on Rivers in the comedian’s 2010 documentary, “A Piece of Work,” Griffin summed up the late legend’s impact thusly: “Much in the way that Phyllis Diller paved the way for her,” she said, “I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for Joan.”