NEW YORK — Joan Rivers was fearless.
Or, to be more accurate, a humorist who fearlessly spun fears into gold.
They were golden, Rivers’ potshots, put-downs and zingers (often aimed at herself) that mocked a world of vanities, foolishness and, yes, fear.
“The trouble with me is, I make jokes too often,” she told the Associated Press in 2013. “That’s how I get through life. Life is SO difficult — everybody’s been through something! But you laugh at it, it becomes smaller.”
So she made fears evaporate, at least for a moment. She blew them up with relish.
She was known as acerbic or even cruel, but often there was bitter honesty in the humor, and anyway her targets were big enough to take it. When she famously joked about Elizabeth Taylor’s obesity (“She has more chins than a Beijing phone book”) both Taylor and phone customers in Beijing handily withstood the assault.
She didn’t spare her own Jewishness, or larger Jewish sensibilities. (At least one of her jokes invoked the Nazi Holocaust and sparked an outcry from the Anti-Defamation League.) But offstage she took her Jewish identity seriously. Just last March, she quietly got inked at a Manhattan tattoo parlor with a tiny “6M” on the inside of her arm, a personal reminder of the six million Jews who died under the Nazis.
For her, even the Grim Reaper was fair game.
Last summer, Rivers — then 80 — rocked her audience at a Manhattan club when, midway through her set, she pretended to have a seizure. A moment later, satisfied she had punked the room, she teased those present by observing how they would have loved to see her drop dead in mid-act. Sure, it would be shocking and sad, she chortled. But what a great story to be able to tell afterward!
Then it was on with the show.
A tiny dynamo, Rivers never, decade after decade, slowed her manic pace, juggling standup dates, TV shows, books, and her jewelry and fashion line, with blatant disregard for her accumulating years.
“I have never wanted to be a day less than I am,” she insisted during that 2013 interview. “People say, 'I wish I were 30 again.’ Nahhh! I’m very happy HERE. It’s great. It gets better and better. And then, of course, we die.”
But even acknowledging the stale breath of mortality, Rivers pledged to work “forever,” and, meanwhile, gave the finger to the ravages of aging: She was an early and voracious proponent of cosmetic surgery, which increasingly gave her the appearance of a hyperactive porcelain doll, and also served her with a wealth of material for jokes. (Item: “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”)
She might never have become a comedian. Her first love was fashion — while still in school, she was a fashion coordinator for a New York department store — and from her earliest TV appearances, however raucous, she arrived stylishly clad.
And had she had her druthers as an entertainer, she would have been an actress playing lots of different roles, not just Joan Rivers. But comedy became an early way to pay the bills. Then it kept on paying.
In this way, she pierced the all-male bastion of standup comedy. She was a pioneer and remains one. She made the world safe for all the women comedians who have followed in her wake.
But Rivers was never accepted as one of the guys. In a career that spanned a half-century, and repeatedly took her to the heights of success, she never was part of that or any “In” crowd. (“I’m in nobody’s circle,” she once said. “I’ve always been an outsider.”) Their disapproval must have been a point of pride for her. Also an enduring sore point.
And it was surely a key to her charm. A life-long free agent, Rivers was always a truth teller without fear or favor. She was beholden to no one except her fans, who, at times, she made bristle or cringe at her outspokenness. But she never failed to make them laugh.