The Virtue of Irreverence

I don’t remember the first time I heard Joan Rivers crack a joke, but I’m […]

I don’t remember the first time I heard Joan Rivers crack a joke, but I’m pretty sure I remember my reaction: shock. And asking whether women were allowed to talk like that–whether people were allowed to talk like that. And, over time, a deepening appreciation for the no-holds-barred humor that perfused everything she ever did.


Writing about Joan Rivers is quite a different animal from writing about Robin Williams. A few weeks ago I did the latter, and the feeling that accompanied that tribute was warmer, more familial. There was a quiet bravery to Williams, and a tenderness that inspired admiration–but it was an admiration that shares a border with sympathy. Joan Rivers more often inspired controversy; I doubt she would have suffered anyone’s sympathy. Hers was a type of steel-eyed strength. She gave away little hints of tenderness, though if you follow her on Twitter you know she held nothing back when it came to her beloved grandson or treasured dogs. She was, like Williams, an energy-infused force of nature, but her bravery had to do with striding right past the pearl-clutchers and naysayers in a crusade toward a punch line–though, given her story, it’s hard not to believe that she wasn’t marching, always, toward something more. Something bigger than just a laugh, bigger even than her gender. And that something bigger was what made the eventual, and inevitable, laugh all the more potent.

She was born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933, and she changed her name and face on her journey through a sea of men–thus the steely eyes–to reach the upper echelons of the make-em-laugh industry. Despite her stage name and doctor-designed features, though, I would never describe her as fake. If anything, Rivers used her chameleon-esque ways as a meal ticket, the basis of some of her best jokes. People remember the barbed humor being directed toward others, but just as often she made herself the target. Cases in point:

“I wish I had a twin, so I could know what I’d look like without plastic surgery.”

“My best birth control now is just to leave the lights on.”

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die, they will donate my body to Tupperware.”

Rivers, like many comics, was no stranger to tragedy, most notably when her husband of twenty-two years committed suicide, and a lengthy period of silence with her daughter followed. But unlike many comics, hers wasn’t a “tears of a clown” situation. Tragedy and unhappiness, she said herself, were excellent fodder for humor. So she didn’t shy away from the heartbreak–she went public. And there was nothing trite in the way she handled it, head-on, and used it as deftly as any other part of life for the mining of a good joke.

Despite the fact that some of her favorite currency was the insult, she was known for her kindness in a field that could be cutthroat and unyieldingly cruel. Fellow comedian Julie Klausner writes about Rivers’ penchant for giving her possessions away and helping younger comedians on their way up the ladder, specifically her crusade to book Billy Eichner a spot on David Letterman’s show. She served for twenty years on the board of God’s Love We Deliver and supported charities like The Elton John AIDS Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (among about a dozen others). Fellow celebrities took to Twitter to express their condolences and memories, including E! colleague Joel McHale, who wrote, “Your rep for kindness to everyone was completely true.”

Perhaps one of my favorite things about her, though, was the fact that nothing–and I mean nothing–was off-limits when it came to her brand of humor. “Off-color” doesn’t begin to describe some of her jokes, but she never backed away from them (in an age when it seems mea culpas are the new black). In fact, she defended the relevance of humor in all circumstances, famously brandishing her philosophy while lashing back at a heckler who dared to tell her that a joke about deafness wasn’t funny (Warning: non-family-friendly language ahead!):


In leaving anything and everything on the table, Rivers made it safe to laugh, always. Humor could be the emergency exit from tragedy, boredom, conformity–any of the typical prisons of humanity. As a fan of the irreverent myself, I would find myself covering my mouth with one hand and fist-pumping with the other at a joke she made that no one else would have dared touch–and that I knew she wouldn’t apologize for later. She never apologized for laughing, which meant that humor was always welcome–and possible. Among her most laudable attributes was her own particular brand of refusing to take anything, herself most notably, too seriously. There is endless wisdom in this practice, I’m convinced.

Rivers died the day before the anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, and you’d be hard-pressed to find many obvious similarities between the two women. But I’m thankful for the range in humanity they represent, and for the fact that there was a woman like Joan Rivers who made irreverence her calling card. I texted a couple of like-minded girlfriends the moment I heard of her passing, and we commiserated over the loss of someone whose humor felt kindred to our own. The world needs, aches for people like Mother Teresa, whose beauty lay in her unflagging servitude and love shown through giving to the least among us. But you know what has two thumbs and will never be compared to Ma Teresa? This girl, the one typing. And it inspires me to know that there is also a beauty to irreverence, to the refusal to bow down to rules of etiquette or others’ expectations. It’s a different beauty, to be sure, full of rough edges and discomfort, but it is still an honest beauty, and a relatable one.

There is a beauty to the laughter that happens at inappropriate moments, when maybe tears or shock are running rampant but an escaped giggle gives the soul some room to breathe. There is a beauty to the hope provided by a humor without limits, that shows up in those most unexpected moments and reminds you that it’s okay not to take yourself too seriously. In fact, that kind of humor–the kind that disdains convention, makes the status quo uncomfortable, shows up unexpectedly, and finds a home anywhere–it sounds a lot like grace.