On Death and Dying and Joan Rivers

Dear Dwonna:

I heard you say that you weren’t sad about Joan Rivers’s death. Why? She was a trailblazer for female comedians, and she should be remembered as such.




Dear Stephanie:

Yes, it’s true that I was not one of the ones who mourned Joan Rivers’s death, though of course I was not “happy” that she had died. (CAVAET: I don’t really mourn any celebrity death, as I don’t actually know these people and do not feel the loss like a close family member might. In fact, I think it’s weird that people get upset about a celebrity death, sometimes behaving like it’s their mother who died.) Not to state the obvious, death is more than likely permanent (unless you believe that we’re reincarnated until we get it “right”), and even Joan Rivers did not deserve to die so suddenly and so seemingly tragically.

Yes, Rivers was a pioneer in comedy, and she was the first female to serve as a permanent guest host for Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. Yet, even Johnny Carson did not like her (for reasons neither has ever disclosed). “Our friendship existed entirely on-camera in front of America, and even then, during the commercial breaks, when the red light went off, we had nothing to say to each other” Rivers said in a 1986 op-ed in People magazine.

Rivers became famous for saying nasty and vile things, and for her, no one was off limits. She and her daughter Melissa Rivers hosted “Fashion Police,” a show on E! Entertainment, and their goal seemed to be to say the nastiest things about what the stars were wearing. (“Who are you wearing?” would become one of her signature catch phrases.) Though many people found their crude and insulting comments funny, I did not. Joan and Melissa Rivers (but mostly Joan) often went beyond making illuminating commentaries about famous people’s clothing to just making vicious and downright degrading remarks that often had nothing to do with what a person was wearing. In fact, Joan Rivers seemed to take much pleasure when people got angry at what she always claimed was just her “sense of humor.”

On “The Today Show” in April, Joan Rivers talked about her living situation with her daughter on the WEtv series “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” and she said that “those women in the basement in Cleveland had more room.” Not surprisingly, her comments “prompted a sharp response” from the attorneys of Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry, two of the three women who had escaped from a home where Ariel Castro had held and tortured them for ten years. When asked to apologize, Rivers said, “I’m a comedienne. I know what those girls went through. It was a little, stupid joke. There is nothing to apologize for. I made a joke. That’s what I do. Calm down. Calm fucking down. I’m a comedienne. They’re free, so let’s move on.”

When asked again to apologize, Rivers suggested that The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer should stop writing about her “stupidity” and instead shift their focus to government leaders. “They got to live rent free for more than a decade,” she told TMZ. “One of them has a book deal. Neither are in a psych ward. They’re okay. I bet you within three years one of them will be on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’” She even suggested that the women lacked a sense of humor, saying that “the TV the guy gave them must not have had SNL.”

Stay classy, Ms. Rivers.

When I was in high school, a guy who used to call my brother and me a “Nigger” whenever the moment struck him was struck and killed by lightening while playing golf, and while I wanted to feel some sadness for his untimely death like all the others at Moline High School did, I couldn’t help but think he deserved what had happened to him. When my Catholic guilt kicked in and I was unable to reconcile my feelings of disgust with wanting to feel pity for him, my mom tried to comfort me by telling me that death didn’t change a person and if someone was a jerk in life, his death could not change who he was in life. I think she was right.

In her 2012 book, I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me, Joan Rivers wrote that she hoped that her funeral would be a “huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action” and “Hollywood all the way.” She also wanted Meryl Streep to cry “in five different accents” and a “wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyonce’s.” Her wishes were printed in the funeral program, and Howard Stern—probably the only person more vile and more repulsive than Joan Rivers—delivered the eulogy. Few should be surprised that Joan Rivers made sure that her funeral was as ostentatious (and as tacky) as she was.

Indeed, Joan Rivers was a pioneer for female comediennes, and she paved the way for the Wanda Sykes’s and the Kathy Griffith’s of the comedy world. She also handled her husband Edgar’s suicide with such grace and class that I actually liked her, if only for a brief moment. However, Rivers’s death does not change the fact that she was a nasty and oftentimes spiteful and hateful woman who claimed that she was just “being funny” when she was putting people down with her profane and boorish comments, and in many ways she is simply a symbol for what’s wrong in this culture. Joan Rivers was just another negative, nasty person with power and an audience who felt the constant need to say negative and nasty things about other people, too many of whom were unable to defend themselves from her vitriol.

Mother Theresa once said, “Let no one every come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” Perhaps if Joan Rivers had embodied and fostered this philosophy, she might have been remembered for more than having been a catty, punitive, nasty, vile, and vindictive woman. Life in America is difficult enough for far too many people, and we need fewer women like Joan Rivers and more kind and compassionate women like Mother Theresa. There’s enough meanness in the world; let’s infuse more love into it.

British Academy Television Awards - Arrivals

One thought on “On Death and Dying and Joan Rivers

  1. Well said. Joan Rivers helped to normalize the way society shames women’s bodies and clothing. Then, she made money off of it. Aside from the egregious amount of fat-shaming alone, Rivers made racist and transmisogynist statements regularly on television. It might be wildly insensitive of me, but I hate how her death has suddenly made her a respectable celebrity figure. My response to all the people who are up-in-arms and brandishing her good graces/accomplishments has largely been, “Since when?” I am not celebrating her death by any means, but I am not going to celebrate her just because she’s died either.

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