Cry Me A Rivers!

Look, I never said this was a news blog (except in applications for paid blogging positions!). Besides, I have to leave a period of time between a celebrity’s death and blogging about it so it doesn’t look like I’ve been knocking off television legends to give me something to write about. Three weeks ago, at age 81 comedian Joan Rivers died, as she lived…in surgery (don’t you dare tell me Joan wouldn’t appreciate a joke like that!). She will undoubtedly be remembered as a stand-up who, unlike many of her generation, was as relevant the day she died as when she first started out. Let’s not forget that Rivers was the comedian who said the unsayable about the widows of 9/11. But she had a real gift for television, and was particularly adept at using everyday formats – talk shows, entertainment news, red carpets – to sneak in provocative and edgy comedy.

Here's Joany!

Here’s Joany!

Rivers got her big break on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1965, where she would continue to appear as guest and guest host until the mid-1980s when a rift between her and Carson caused her to be blacklisted from the talk show until this year. Her caustic manner and matter-of-fact handling of other personalities on this and her Fox talk show vehicle The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was a refreshing departure from both the sycophantic hosting and demure women associated with the genre. It paved the way for her later television career spent trashing celebrities both to their faces and in absentia on the E! shows Live from the Red Carpet and Fashion Police. It also showed that Rivers could insert her brash, no-holds-barred comedy into regular television without ever disrupting it. She didn’t revolutionise late-night talk shows but made them far less deferential and more assertively direct.

Joan Rivers never seemed to be snobbish about what kind of television she was prepared to do. In later years, she would frequently appear on home shopping network QVC to hock her line of costume jewellery. In 1996, she became a reporter on E!’s Live from the Red Carpet, a job more usually reserved for young, up-and-coming, vacuum-brained celebrity enthusiasts. This was as much because she knew television was a business as it was to do something interesting and shocking with bland, formulaic TV. Playing herself on Louis C.K.’s artful sitcom Louie, Rivers castigates the stand-up for leaving a gig in a casino because of its corporate and commercial diktats, addressing her reputation as a ‘sell-out’. Her red carpet interviews are proof enough that Rivers could transform the most banal role into comic art. Acerbic, fast and wounding, she made it entertaining and intelligent with savage mockery replacing awed reverence.

Rivers has been on TV screens weekly since 2010 in E!’s panel show Fashion Police. The highlight of each episode, for both viewers and co-hosts it seemed, was the comedian’s throwaway similes about celebrity dress sense, which would frequently incorporate a ruthless and tasteless commentary on pop culture. No death appeared to be too soon to joke about, no disaster or ailment a taboo, no imperfection beyond satire. Year upon year, the show demonstrated perfectly how Rivers could condense her act into TV’s rigid dimensions without becoming any less sick and twisted. Her 2011 appearance on a Season 2 episode of Louie was a long overdue recognition of Rivers’ standing in comedy, as she becomes Svengali to the disillusioned comic. But she is represented according to a tension between commerce and art that has always been part of her persona, and one that she has managed to resolve without fuss.

The goon squad are coming to town!

The goon squad are coming to town!

Like most celebrities who want to survive in contemporary TV, Rivers allowed her life to be scrutinised onscreen in a reality series. Her relationship with daughter Melissa was the subject of Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best and her family dynamic was addressed in Celebrity Wife Swap where she swapped her daughter for Bristol Palin (for reasons best known to the producers). Perhaps her most unremarkable television work, if only for the foot-binding conventions of reality shows that do not permit idiosyncrasy, they are still testament to Rivers’ canny understanding of where to be in TV at the right time. With all the low-end TV she’s been involved in; some might be inclined to write off much of Joan Rivers’ time on the box. But she definitely found her niche in each genre she tackled, and never sacrificed what made her comedy special for the sake of being on television.

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