Before Joan Rivers, if a woman wanted to be funny, she had to dress like a clown. No matter the elegance offstage, onstage women of comedy needed to hide their natural beauty or preferred personal flair. Men could just stand there in a tux and tell jokes, while women had to wear the fashion equivalent of a big red nose to be heard.
Fannie Brice’s fame was based on being the ugly duck in a sea of swans. Moms Mabley was housecoated and toothless, Minnie Pearl wore a price tag dangling from a cheap five-and-dime hat, and Phyllis Diller had to hide a knock-out figure in a clown suit that included gloves and a fright wig.
But Rivers had style. She never dressed down to make the audience accept her. In her early appearances, she was the best-dressed person at an upper-middle class cocktail party, and as her career soared, she became the best- dressed (even if sometimes overdressed) hostess of Manhattan. And she was always one of the smartest people in the room.
Tributes will pour in from fans of her off-camera kindness, her unrelenting work ethic, the sharpness of her wit, the acerbic truth-to-power attitude, and her brash honesty of never sparing anyone, including herself. Others will dance around to “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” — not necessarily celebrating her actual death, of course, but relieved that she will now finally shut up.
But the fact that she never reduced herself to buffoon persona is what I admire most. She gave female comedians permission to be lovely and funny. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey can now knock ‘em dead in dazzling gowns at award shows and in personal appearances and still be reigning comedic queens. No matter the fact that she used her features and own aging as material, she didn’t play clothes stupid.
In fact, she never played stupid. As brilliant as many of the female comedians who proceeded her were, much of their comedy was veiled by the pretense of innocence and boob-dom. Her strengths were her unabashed fearlessness to be herself and her razor-sharp wit.
A woman warrior
There is no doubt that Rivers was a warrior desperately striving to stay relevant. Few people, let alone women, can crash as low as Rivers did after her late night talk show’s demise and her beloved husband’s suicide, and singlehandedly climb the thorny ropes back to a new peak of success.
Not only did she dress to the nines, but she was sharp enough to use it as a platform in refashioning her career to become the queen of mean in fashion. Her simple question, “Who are you wearing?” was the question a lot of women were dying to know. And that simple, honest query created a whole industry of red carpet fashion coverage.
No one was ever lukewarm about Ms. Rivers. You either loved her or hated her — actually, if you hated her, you loved to hate her. Rivers said the secret of her success was that she verbalized what people were secretly thinking. For some it would have been their meanest, most bitter day on Earth. She seemed to feel shielded from criticism by her own self-effacing barbs with an attitude that “If I make fun of myself, no one else should dare to.” But this is America, and anyone can change a channel.
You can dismiss her comedy, but you have to admire her American dream success. She knew who she was and wasn’t afraid to show it. . .in Valentino and diamonds.
For a remembrance by Stacia Friedman, click here.
For a remembrance by Thom Nickels, click here.