Despite the fact that she was a rich, ripe, 81-year-old, Joan Rivers was just one of those people who you thought would never, ever die. There was just something about her that made her seem ageless. Maybe it was the fact that she was always, always working, or the fact that she had one of the sharpest comedic minds in the business. Even though she was 81, she could probably think of a one-liner or zinger faster than any of us could. Or maybe it was the fact that most of her body parts were less than 18 years old. There was just something about her that made it seem like she could go on forever and outlive us all.
I could go on and on about how much of a pioneer she was for women in standup comedy, or how she inspired legions of female comics to follow in her footsteps. She created the phrase, “Who are you wearing?” which can now be heard on every red carpet from here to Timbuktu. She had an inspiring career as an author, interviewer, and hawker of products on QVC, but I think that will get covered by everyone and their dog, frankly, because she was just such an impressive woman and there’s so much to cover. She was a tremendous person.
Instead, I want to point out some of the things she did and saw in her career, and I’ll tell you why it’s so shocking that she’s gone. She was in a play with then-unknown Barbara Streisand in the 1950s. She worked on “The Carol Burnett Show,” was a regular on “Hollywood Squares,” and wrote and directed a Billy Crystal movie at the age of 45. Any ONE of those things alone would make a career for a normal person, but that barely scratches the surface for her. She made her first appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1965, and amazingly became the permanent guest host of the show in 1983. She was like a daughter to Johnny, at least until that fateful moment in 1986 when she became the first female to host a talk show, “The Late Show With Joan Rivers” on FOX. Carson was so offended that she didn’t tell him personally that he banned her from his show–a ban that was only reversed this year when Jimmy Fallon took over as host. That ban lasted beyond Johnny, and continued through Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien’s tenures on the show.
We’re talking about a woman who’s seen them all come and go, and at the age of 81, she could have easily retired and enjoyed her twilight years after a long, venerable career. Not a soul would have blamed her. She could have hung up the microphone a long time ago, but she never did. She never slowed down, and she never stopped. She still did hundreds of standup performances a year, all over the country. She did commercials, made appearances on the E! network, hosted shows, and just came out with a book at the beginning of July. She even released a new episode of her podcast the day before her throat surgery, and she made her last TV appearance on Aug. 26, when she hosted an episode of “Fashion Police” to discuss the Emmys and VMAs. She was a champion of Jewish rights, women’s rights, and the right to tell a fucking joke. She was so unapologetic and there was truly nobody else like her.
But more than that, she was the last of a dying breed.
There are barely any people left who have appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” or even remember Johnny Carson. How about someone who hosted the show FOR Johnny in his absence? What about appearances on “The Carol Burnett Show” or “The Ed Sullivan Show”? She worked with Milton Berle, Dick Van Dyke, George Burns, Dean Martin, Steve Allen, Jack Parr, Sid Cesar, Imogene Coca, Burgess Meredith, or Ed Sullivan; she appeared at the legendary Friars Club roasts, the Dean Martin celebrity roasts, or on classics such as “Your Show of Shows,” “Get Smart,” “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” or “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” There are very few people left who can claim they’ve worked with such people and appeared on these shows, who are still active and still lending their talents to the world and inspiring generations of new comedians and writers every day.
That’s what happens when you lose a Joan Rivers, or when you think about losing someone like Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, or, God help us, Don Rickles. These people are the last of a dying breed, and when they go, that’s it. They’re not coming back, and they’re taking an entire era with them. These are our last connections to the Golden Age of comedy and television, and unfortunately, once they go, there really won’t be anyone left who remembers that incredible, groundbreaking era. They paved the way so the rest of us could go forth and make dick jokes on the Internet.
We have to treasure them while we have them. People like Joan Rivers will never be truly gone–just think of the sheer volume of material she left behind, including hours upon hours of standup comedy, television show appearances, and the dozen books she wrote (I haven’t even READ a dozen books). She was such a pioneer who blazed a trail that comics of both genders will follow for years to come. Joan Rivers changed the world. She was truly unique, there was nobody like her, and the world is a little less funny without her in it.