In early April of 2013 I sent out what I thought was a pie in the sky email to Joan Rivers’ publicist on the heels of the Jimmy Fallon/Tonight Show announcement. At the time I was working for another outlet and doing a story on why women are rarely, if ever, considered for hosting roles in late night television. About 30 minutes later my phone rang.
“Joan would love to speak to you — can she call you on this number?”
Not even twenty minutes later (after a frantic, frenetic freak-out on my part that occupied much of the office’s attention), I was on the phone with Rivers herself. “Alicia, this is Joan. I can’t yell. I’m in a beauty shop, but I’m here,” were the first words out of her mouth.
“Take your time, I’m going out to the street to talk,” I heard her say to daughter Melissa before she turned over to me: “Hello darling, how are you?”
For being considered by many to be a queen of mean of sorts, Rivers was permanently gracious and kind, but not afraid to tell it to you straight. Hers was an insight that was as entertaining as it was telling: a spitfire unwavering in her tenacity. It was an inevitable observation, evident from minute one of our conversation.
“Ask me anything you want to know — but first of all, just so we get the record straight, I was the first — FIRST — permanent guest hostess on the Carson show, which is unprecedented. Which was never done before in history. It was between me and 6,000 men and they picked me. I’m the first woman to break the barrier on late night. It was on for 9½ months, and [I] was taken off for personal reasons, not ratings. Very important.”
When pressed for more, Rivers explained that she “was told by [the heads of the network] ‘the tail does not wag the dog.’ I was told that on a Thursday and we were off air on a Friday.”
But Rivers was nothing if not steadfast in her ambition, and she moved ever-forward in her quest. She lived as she preached: never once believing the hype that to be “ladylike” was the only requirement of the female sex. Hers was an energy marked with power, authority, confidence, and saying whatever the f–k it was she believed, regardless of your opinions on the matter.
Much of the 40-plus minutes of our talk centered on the idea of women in comedy and entertainment in general — a subject Rivers knows more about than perhaps anyone. She was the first late night talk show host that was a woman for years, and still the only one to break through on broadcast television. And her tough, brash, ambitious nature was evident even in the moments where we didn’t necessarily agree on the state of the industry — because hers was a career of incredible struggle and discrimination. Her career built on no one’s back but her own. And even throughout all the bullshit, never once did she let other people’s opinions of her stop her. Not ever.
To call her an inspiration would be an understatement. Rivers was a beacon: a mess of contradictions, she embraced human nature with a force. She scaled mountains in her career and never stopped creating, doing, and going — even when she was never, ever, ever given the credit she truly deserved; not praised and commended for her grit to succeed and be unapologetically herself in spite of what others may have wanted.
She would balk at the suggestion — even in the face of a veritable laundry list of her accomplishments — that she were some sort of legendary door-opener for the female set. Mostly because she knew that there was still so much more to be done, and she was aware of those that came before her. The battle was one that couldn’t rest on her shoulders alone: that would be too reductive. It was up to all women to, in a sense, nut up or shut up.
“You have to man up,” she explained as she drove back to her house for her seder dinner that night, “the work is intense, you have to be on top of everything [but] that’s our choice and our luck to be given that choice.” The proof, to Rivers, was always in the work.
“You cannot change your DNA and you cannot change what you are. But look at all the strong women in comedy; they’re all very strong.” Rivers’ point being that in order to squash the divide, one had to transcend it. “So many women [that] have the quality of man/female to them are taking over, and are [becoming] leaders.”
She was keenly aware of the benefits to embracing the duality of our human existence — to say nothing of it all being a great source of comedy. “People don’t want to see women in that position, even though we all know Cleopatra ruled the roost, and we all know that Marie Antoinette made the decisions, you know what I’m saying?”
For Rivers, the problem was never in the sex or gender of a person, but in society’s desire to keep submissive. “I call them boopbedoops,” she explained with a laugh. That type of women so many — on either side of the spectrum — find desirable. Those that avoid rocking the boat, speaking their mind, and are quick to say “‘Oh, sweetheart you’re so smart, you’re so wonderful, you’re the best!'”
“Women comedians? We are strong and we are lion tamers — and don’t you ever forget it!,” Rivers proclaimed at one point. “We can have three little bows in our hair and be wearing six inch heels: we’re still lion tamers. And we go in there and we take over, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do stand-up and we wouldn’t be able to run a show — late night or morning or anytime.”
But Joan Rivers? She was something more: both lion and tamer. And there will never be another sort like her.
Image Credit: Andrea Collins/WireImage; Time, Inc