The Brooklyn-born Joan Alexandra Molinsky may have dreamed of performing in the great plays on Broadway, but her alter ego Joan Rivers was built for comedy. Bold, brash, opinionated and at times as confessional as her hero Lenny Bruce, Rivers, who died on September 4th at 81, led the way for an entire generation of female stand-up comedians. To celebrate her influence, here are a handful of her best bits, ranging from most emblematic to most influential.
Though there's little footage from the New York clubs in which Rivers came up, such as The Bitter End, the comic's earliest TV appearances still reflected her outspoken and often feminist sensibility. She couldn't talk affairs with married men or abortions on NBC, no, but there were still solid gags: "If you're 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."
Though Rivers' style was bold, physical and often as garish as they outfits she'd later favor, she could also approach an almost confessional atmosphere with her audiences. As absurd as some of the jokes may be ("I was such a dog, to get me down the aisle they threw a bone."), during this set the crowd leans in, rapt. Rivers, for her part, sells it as though she were finally letting her guard down and giving them the unvarnished truth.
On Rivers' big, critically acclaimed album, she's got a number of zingers about the roles of men and women including, "A man can sleep around, nobody asks any questions, but if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, right away, she's a tramp," and "Men like them stupid. All you need is a pretty face and trick pelvis and you're home free." Listening to the entire record gives you the sense that, when Rivers had small rooms on her side, she was unstoppable.
Married twice, it follows that marriage was one of Rivers' go-to topics. Though the suicide of her second husband in 1987 brought about dark times, she still found ways to get past it: "I once asked my husband, "Why don't you call out my name when we're making love?" "Because I don't want to wake you up."
Yes, that was indeed the title of her 2006 special for the Bravo Network. This clip is just one example of how Rivers tore up the boards in her seventies and beyond. Within the first few minutes, she charges onstage, verbally dismantles the set and superfluous four-piece orchestra, talks about how cheap host network Bravo is, dishes on old people, ugly people and bitches about her most obvious heir (and competition), Kathy Griffin. The title also happily reflects how little fear she had while joking about death.
Rivers was Jewish and born in New York's outer boroughs; though she didn't dwell on these facts in her act, they were always in the air. In this live show, she revisits another of her classics: "I had a Jewish delivery; they knock you out with the first pain; they wake you up when the hairdresser shows," and in this bit, she acts out her posh post-partum activities. As she mimes smoking, she drolly carrying on with the nurse who has helped her deliver: "A little girl? Fabulous! White? Good good good."
Rivers didn't mind talking about sex or old age in the least. This tendency led to a number of graphic images that kept her audience squirming and laughing simultaneously: "The vagina drops. One morning, I woke up and thought, Why am I wearing a bunny slipper? And why is it gray?"
There were a handful of evergreen bits that never got old for Rivers, and for good reason. Jokes like, "No man will ever put his hand up your dress looking for a library card," charmed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in the Sixties and continued to bring audiences to attention even late in her career.
After taking it in the chops from fellow comics including Gilbert Gottfried and Greg Giraldo all evening, Rivers's anger is delightfully apparent here. She goes after Kathy Griffin ("You stole my act, you stole my gays and you stole the face of the Burger King.") and then characteristically declares that she won't ever retire: "Comedy needs Joan Rivers! I plan to be around for the next 100 years, just like herpes!"
Rivers regularly caused offense, but remained unapologetic. (In the era of shaming comedians and demanding apologies, she is a touchstone.) In this clip from the excellent Rivers documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, she wrangles with a (former) fan when he doesn't like her jokes about deaf people. She tells him comedy is about processing the most difficult things in order to laugh about them: "We're going to talk about what it's like to have a man with one leg who lost it in World War II and then went back to get it, because that's littering."