How Joan Rivers Did Money
Sady Doyle threads the needle and gives America the Joan Rivers round-up it has been waiting for, one that acknowledges the woman’s genius as well as her severe limitations. This, to my mind, is the nut graf:
Rivers was the daughter of immigrants, had gone bankrupt, and survived her blacklisting largely through her formidable work ethic — she did everything from cruise ship gigs to penis enlargement ads; “I’ll write for Hitler for $500,” she told NPR — and, tellingly, some of her best jokes revolved around money. For example, her take on child-star siblings Dakota and Elle Fanning: “Elle says she and Dakota are ‘normal sisters’ who just go to school and play together…In their six-hundred-room mansion on the island they own.” Even that Miley gag revolves around class; on one level, it’s an easy joke about how often Cyrus poses nude. But primarily, it’s about the fact that Miley Cyrus — a girl whose rowdy, pot-smoking, gosh-y’all vulgarity makes her seem like she should never be more than 10 yards away from a tray of Jell-O shots — has an extra 20 grand to spend on fucking designer lingerie.
She’s right. Here’s one of my favorite Joan Rivers jokes: “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.” My not-favorite Rivers jokes? All the ones to do with other women being fat or looking insufficient feminine.
And yet of course a woman who had spent her life attending the church of self-hatred would lash out at people like Lena Dunham, who has a Master’s degree in Not Giving a Shit. Rivers was famously so uncomfortable with her own body that she traded it in every year for a new one, the way Americans used to do with Chevrolets. Judging by everything I’ve read or seen about her, her favorite onscreen role was probably Dot Matrix in Spaceballs. It must have been such a relief to be an actual robot.
Her flaws aside, you have to admire the woman’s hustle, especially after watching the documentary about her. Her dedication is legendary. She died at 81 having never stopped working, no matter how much money and un-real estate she accrued:
The suburban macmansion-sized penthouse spans 5,190 square feet, as per marketing details from 2013, and includes a private elevator landing, a pair of humongous double-height parlors and one small-ish dining room plus a separate sitting room for guests, a pine paneled library with leopard print rug, three bedrooms — hers with a lace-trimmed canopy bed, 4.5 bathrooms, five fireplaces, a small office, two planted terraces, and two New York City-sized kitchens. Monthly taxes and maintenances total $20,100 according to digital marketing materials.
That’s the apartment Peggy Noonan’s referring to in her occasionally bizarre reminiscence of the comedian, btw: “[Rivers’] intelligence was penetrating and original, her tastes refined. Her duplex apartment on the east side of Manhattan was full of books in beautiful bindings, of elegant gold things on the table, lacquered boxes, antique furniture.” I guess “refined” and “elegant” are in the eye of the beholder? But yeah. Part of Joan Rivers’ shtick was portraying herself as a Jewish American Princess extraordinaire. She joked about scattering her husband’s ashes in Neiman Marcus so that she’d be able to visit them every day.
Noonan’s farewell is a reminder that Rivers, like many other old, self-made rich people, had a conservative streak. That is evident in even her funniest jokes:
Women should look good. Work on yourselves. Education? I spit on education. No man is ever going to put his hand up your dress looking for a library card.
THAT SAID she was also revolutionary from start to finish. If you need reminding of that, listen to Chris Rock:
You think she’s better than Robin Williams?
Yeah, well, put it this way, she could definitely follow him. That’s it. You as a reporter might go one way or the other. But put a bunch of comedians in a room and go, “Okay, who’s going to have a good set?” Who could Joan Rivers NOT follow? You’re not going to come up with anybody’s name. There’s literally no one in the world Joan Rivers couldn’t follow and blow off the stage.
It’s problematic to label her a female comedian?
You know, she did do a lot for women, but she did a lot for comedy. Please! A lot of my style is Joan Rivers. A lot! But, you know, nobody would ever say that because we don’t look alike. She’s one of the greatest to ever live!
What do you mean a lot of your style is Joan Rivers?
I mean, just watch me on any awards show telling jokes about celebrities. Who started that shit? Joan Rivers! [Laughs.]