The old adage is that celebrities pass away in threes. In the past few weeks, this theory could be said to have been “proven true” with the passing of Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall and Joan Rivers. One can only wonder if when Joan was calling Robin out fondly as one of the “nice guys” that she could have known that she would be number three.
There are huge differences in saying good bye to each of the three. When Joan Rivers death was hitting social media, those who loved her decried her passing, but there were plenty who were quite clear that they would not miss her at all. Even within the LGBT community, people had to weigh feelings for one of our first and strongest allies with a recent failed quip that President Obama was “gay” and that the First Lady was a t-slur.
Joan Rivers thrived on shock, inappropriateness, and “saying what everyone is thinking” in the most in-your-face way. Her theory was that to laugh at it, even in derogatory terms, was to master an issue. She stated that had she been captured and sent to Auschwitz, she would have been in the barracks cracking jokes – shock humor to battle the horror.
Many did not agree. For me, as a gay dad, I know that she fascinated me and I was constantly laughing at things that I “officially” did not find funny. The name of her recent memoir gave me pause. “I Hate Everyone….Starting With Me.” Hatred, and particularly self-hatred is the core of so much of the violence in our world. Certainly, she meant mock hatred, but is shock humor around our society’s core failing really a help, or does it make it worse?
On the issue of bullying, most bullies terrorize their victims with the claim of “being funny”. Where is the line? Is a bully with great comic timing acceptable, but one that merely demeans his or her victim just doing evil?
While I had guilty pleasure over Joan Rivers comedy, I would never have permitted my young sons to see it, or to mimic anything like it.
Joan Rivers has exerted her influence on American humor for five decades. The trickle down effect through less talented hands has not always been pretty, or funny. As I watched the “tweeny” vision programming that my sons have wanted to view, I cannot help but observe the shock/insult style of “humor”. This poorly executed humor seems to be attempting the Joan Rivers shock punches, but ends up as just insults followed by an old 1950s sounding laugh track.
When young viewers ,who see spouting insults as a popularity badge, copy it with their school mates the results are worse. I nipped this in the bud with my son Jesse, who sincerely want to make his friends laugh, “Pal,” I admonished. “Mean does not equal funny. Being cruel is NOT cool.” He has gotten the message, and that programming no longer graces our living room.
Is that nature of comedy the fault of Joan Rivers? No, of course not. It is no more her fault than the huge waves are the fault of the master surfer. To Joan’s credit, she rode the line of being a foul mouth terminator on stage, while being to all accounts a gracious lady in person. I was surprised at how many of my gay men friends had personal accounts of close encounters with La Joan. One had done her hair and she apologized for not being MORE personable as she poured over her notes. “Comedy takes a lot of homework”, she told him. Another friend heard her at a convention where she was not only funny, but talked at length about her very deep care for her daughter.
For me, my own elbow rubbing happened in a Tower Records store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The record store was right next door to famed Wolfgang Puck’s eatery and Joan and her husband Edgar had landed to do a quick walk through to see how her new album at the time, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most, was doing. Joan was running the show and handed the gay clerk at the front a copy of the album. “You really want to be playing this, it is funny as hell.” She advised. “It’s going great Joan!” the young man gushed. “I was just going to put it on.” Joan and Edgar counted all the copies in the bin, and then the couple was flying out the door. “Love you!!!” the clerk shouted at the star. “Oh I love you too, mwaa mwaa mwaaa,” the famous voice echoed in, now from the parking lot. For those of us in the store, we sort of felt like witnesses to a small but hugely powerful tornado.
That was Joan Rivers, taking our culture by storm. While I will not teach my sons to zing or to shock people by screeching insults, there is much of the spirit of Joan Rivers, I would want to see them and myself emulate.
I want to emulate her love of family. I love my sons with the same intensity which Joan loved her daughter Melissa and her grandson Cooper. I hope my sons in turn love their own families with the same fervor.
I want to be brave and stand up for people before it is popular to do so. She was pro-gay before it was “cool” to be in any circles. Her “take no prisoners” style gave us means to diffuse our anger and outrage while not apologizing for who we are.
I want to live my life right to the end with the full gusto that she did. I do not want to melt away in some rocking chair remembered for some past glory. I want fire and passion to the end. I am reminded of the lines from Cabaret when it comes to Joan: “I used to have this girlfriend known as Elsie ; With whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea; She wasn’t what you’d call a blushing flower; As a matter of fact she rented by the hour; The day she died the neighbors came to snicker; “Well, that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor” But when I saw her laid out like a Queen; She was the happiest corpse, I’d ever seen; I think of Elsie to this very day… as for me ,and as for me ; I made my mind up, back in Chelsea; When I go, I’m going like Elsie”
Mostly, I want to emulate her sheer guts. She had guts as a woman. She had guts as a person of age who refused to let ageism take her down. She had guts as to one who met failure and rejection and kept coming back for another day. She had guts to use her brand of humor to make a point about strength and beating adversity rather than to rationalize bullying.
Judge Judith Sheindlin (“Judge Judy”) made the observation of her old friend Joan on the talk show The View:
“Joan Rivers knew how to be the hero of her own story”
For my sons, that is the quality that I hope they learn the most from the legacy of Joan Rivers: face your triumphs and your disasters without taking either too seriously, and strive to become the hero of your own life.
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