“I was smart enough to go through any door that opened.” — Joan Rivers

It’s her birthday today.

A couple of days before Joan Rivers died, when there was still some hope she would pull through, I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about this legend with someone who loves her, and who has a lot of smart things to say about her. We had been talking about the tone of all of the Tweets in support of her, and how unique they were, and what they said about Joan Rivers (especially the comments from her fellow comics – which, as far as I’m concerned, were the only comments that mattered). So I put Mitchell on speaker and turned on the tape recorder.


Joan Rivers Portrait

Mitchell Fain: Joan Rivers is definitely one of the top queer icons. I don’t know a gay person who doesn’t love her.

Sheila O’Malley: And why is that?

MF: It’s twofold so stick with me on this. There’s a lot of criticism lately because of the mean things Joan says. It’s a very PC world right now. My thing is: Nobody gives that criticism to Don Rickles. They only say it to Joan, because of sexism, anti-Semitism, a kind of “keep that mouthy Jewish broad quiet” thing.

But I think what people are missing is: Yes, she says incredibly mean things. A. She’s a comedian. She’s never done anything differently than the boys. And B. if Joan Rivers were a person who said mean things about one particular group of people and not another, if she only singled out one group, it would be a very different thing. But there’s not one group of people who get a pass from her.

She’s one of those people who says things out loud what we’re all thinking, in our worst moments, and she says it with cleverness and speed. And the monster gets smaller. You know when you’re a little kid and you think there’s a monster in your closet, and you have to take the monster out of the closet and realize there is no monster? Joan Rivers makes the monster smaller. Whether it’s Kim Kardashian or menopause, she makes the monster smaller. And everybody is subject to her attention. It could be the Jewish girl sitting there, the skinny white girl, the black guy. Yes, it’s insult comedy, but it’s always felt honest, as opposed to just mean.

There was that thing recently where she was on CNN and she walked out of the interview.

I think a lot of people thought she was faking it for publicity. I don’t think that’s true. Rivers said, “You are not the person to be interviewing a comic.” The woman was taking her to task and saying, “You say really mean things …” and Rivers just walked off. We can talk about it in terms of political correctness, and of course it will be better to be a kinder gentler nation, but I will always take Auntie Joan’s honesty.

One of the big controversies recently was with Lena Dunham, where Rivers said something about Dunham’s thighs or something. Lena Dunham tweeted about Joan Rivers when she heard Rivers was ill, and she could have said any number of things, and she wrote:

We can’t lose Joan. All love and healing wishes to Her Majesty Joan Rivers- being ripped a new one by you is an honor to be treasured.

It makes me want to cry, I don’t know why. Dunham freakin’ gets it. There was an article titled Did Joan Rivers Body-Shame Lena Dunham? Yes, she did. And Lena Dunham said it was an “honor and a treasure.” So fuck you.

All I know is Joan Rivers still makes me guffaw or gasp or shake my head in shock. I am never less than entertained. She’s a loud-mouthed bubbe who tells the truth. We need her.

We can talk about her in terms of her importance to comedy. You can really count on one hand the female comics who broke that ground. What Joan was doing was different and she was doing it on a much larger scale.

Joan Rivers

The one time I saw Joan in concert was back in the 80s. My brother and I went to see her at the Warwick Musical Tent, and it was a big deal because the whole show was David Brenner and Joan Rivers. And at the time, popular conception was that you couldn’t have two comics on a bill. It wasn’t done. You’d have a singer and a comic. And Brenner and Rivers were like, “WHY can’t we do this?”


It was a juggernaut. It was huge. It changed the game. She challenged people’s ideas, she challenged how the industry saw comedians.

She also changed the way women could speak in public. Let’s not underestimate that. Yes, a lot of what she did was self-deprecating. But the stuff she talked about, her inadequacies as a sexual partner, all of that stuff, was extraordinary.


Her mom was like “You marry well as a Jewish lady, and make sure your husband makes a lot of money so that you can have a fur coat and rise in a society that hates Jews.” That’s how it worked. Joan’s mom married a doctor and it was the Depression and Joan’s dad would see patients for free, or take eggs as payment, and Joan’s mother was not having it. There was a lot of tension in the household about success and making money which is why Joan Rivers was always good at making money. She marries this guy Edgar, she loves him, he then loses all her money, and kills himself. And remember when that happened: this comedian’s husband kills himself, and the one commodity she has, her humor – nobody wants to see it anymore. Nobody wants to see the widow of a suicide victim tell jokes. Then she proceeds to make her fortune back by doing whatever the fuck it takes. And that is a big thing for me about Joan Rivers and her comedy. She will do whatever the fuck it takes.


One of the things that is very fun to watch is this In Bed With Joan Rivers web series. My favorite one recently is Bianca Del Rio, who was a contestant on Rupaul’s Drag Race. Bianca is an insult comic but he does it in drag, and is definitely the descendant of Joan Rivers. So here is this drag queen basically doing Joan’s act, really well, on Joan’s show, and you see Joan Rivers sitting back, letting Bianca Del Rio get all the laughs. Joan Rivers certainly gets in her perfectly-timed digs, but that type of generosity is the real Joan Rivers.

Here’s the deal. Everybody I know has stolen from Joan Rivers’ act. We watch Joan Rivers and she said all the things we couldn’t say or felt disempowered to say. It’s like Barbra Streisand’s answer to why the gays love her so much: “I was different and I made it.”

SOM: There was a moment in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” where she’s there for the Mark Twain award for George Carlin. And what was so revealing was her saying, “I’m never included when these events come up. I’m just glad I’m included.” It takes a kind of stamina to withstand the Boys Club that still exists.

MF: In her first book, Enter Talking, she talks about Second City being a Boys Club and she tells stories of stepping forward from the back line – where you step into a scene – and seeing other people put their arms out to stop her. Now she talks very lovingly about Second City, in retrospect, but her experience there was not a positive one. It was another place where she wasn’t wanted.

SOM: And then there are these amazing moments like when Johnny Carson says on air, “You’re gonna be a big star” and then eventually hands over a permanent guest-spot to her. That was a game-changer as well.


MF: There still isn’t a late-night talk show with a female host, except for Chelsea Handler.

SOM: At the Comedy Central roast of Joan Rivers, it was all about trashing her looks and her plastic surgery. Anytime anyone mentions the plastic surgery, I get annoyed. If she didn’t do that to her face, she’d hear about it. “Look at how she let herself go!” You can’t win, as a woman, with aging. Besides, who cares? It’s the most obnoxious concern-trolling. Men aren’t treated this way. She was also one of the first people to talk about, to admit she was getting plastic surgery.

MF: She talked about everything. Periods, menopause, how your body falls when you get older. It was the next step from Phyllis Diller who talked about not being a good housewife.


SOM: And Diller’s schtick was including women in the conversation of comedy in a very important way. Diller was admitting something really secret, admitting that the happy homemaker thing was shit. She was telling a dirty little secret about women’s lives at that time. Then there was Carol Burnette. Elaine May. You can feel a new ground opening up.

MF: Rivers opened the door for us to talk about stuff that the boys didn’t want us to talk about. And she did it anyway and she’s been doing it for 50 years.

There was a late-night cable show a while back that was a roundtable of different comics. It was almost always boys, with an occasional girl. They would throw out names of comedians and everyone had an opinion. “Let’s talk about Pryor.” And someone threw out Joan Rivers. It was all these young boy comics, and the way that these guys talked about Joan Rivers, they were like, “Let me tell you something. Do not count Joan out. Just because she’s an old lady with plastic surgery and she’s on red carpets and Hollywood Squares – when you’re one on one with Joan Rivers, she’s still the smartest person in the room.”


And that’s what matters. The reaction from comics to her illness has been so interesting. It’s not “Poor Joan Rivers,” it’s almost selfish. It’s like, “We need more from you, Joan. Get it together.” There’s a selfish thread of “We are not done needing Joan Rivers. We still need Auntie Joan to say shitty things.” The tone is: “No no no, there are way more people to make fun of, we need you, the Kardashians are still around, who’s next, we need you to call it out.” Who’s gonna say that stuff now?


It also speaks volumes about Joan Rivers’ awareness of pop culture. I mean, Fashion Police, is, for me, appointment TV. She says shit you can’t believe someone is getting away with on TV. It’s amazing. Even the people on the set with her, they can’t believe what she’s saying. Joan Rivers calls out Ariana Grande, or Lena Dunham, she calls out the most brand-new and/or obscure or utterly of-the-moment pop culture person, and Joan Rivers wants to find out who the fuck they are. It seems like she’s off-the-cuff making up mean things, which she is, but the important thing is that she’s still paying attention. In a weird way, she’s a version of Will Rogers. She’s the Will Rogers of mean. She’s always observing and making comments about our culture.

I mean, what 80-something year old lady knows who Ariana Grande is? I think it’s extraordinary. Clearly it comes from a place of being driven, maybe a little bit crazy, or desperate … but she’s still doing it at a level that other people her age just are not.

SOM: What I loved in that “Piece of Work” doc were her file cabinets of jokes. One was labeled “Cooking to Tony Danza.”

[Roaring laughter.]

SOM: D comes after C. Oh my God.

MF: It’s genius.

SOM: Cooking to Tony Danza…

[More laughter.]

SOM: There’s that moment in the documentary where she’s playing the club in Wisconsin and she makes a Helen Keller joke and a guy storms out after heckling her. And afterwards there was a little Wisconsin lady getting Joan’s autograph and the lady was like, “That guy, he just doesn’t understand comedy,” and Joan said, “I know. It’s comedy. It’s not meant to be serious.” I loved that bonding moment with a real person, but then, Joan is being walked out to her car, and she’s saying, “I feel bad. His son is deaf. Maybe he had a catharsis tonight. Maybe it was good for him to shout at me.”

MF: What I love about that scene is how she handles the heckler. As someone who has spent many years onstage, making jokes, hoping the audience thinks it’s funny and then dealing with people who don’t, watching Joan deal with it is a master class. She tells the joke. He heckles. She rips him a new asshole. She improvises a joke to get the audience back on her side. And then, boom, she’s back into her act. THAT is technique. She’s an old lady. She’s a senior citizen. I know 20-year-olds who cannot recover from a moment onstage like that. She does a 3-point turn right back into her act. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It blew me away. I watch that scene over and over, asking, “How does she do that? What’s the formula?”

Here’s one of my favorite Joan Rivers moments of all time. It was from when she had a daytime talk show and it was during the whole Jessica Hahn and Jim Bakker scandal. Jessica Hahn was on Rivers’ show via satellite and Hahn turns the interview around to start attacking Joan for saying mean things. And you think, “Honey, what possessed you to take on Joan Rivers?” Underestimate her at your peril. Underestimate this old lady at your peril. It ends with Joan Rivers, legitimately pissed, saying, “I’m not the one who slept my way to the middle.” I think when the history of television is written, that is definitely a high point. It is one of my favorite moments of all time.

SOM: “I’m not the one who slept my way to the middle.” Wow. You can’t recover from a comment like that.

MF: Yup. Done. Garry Shandling tells this great story about how he opened for Joan Rivers in Vegas years ago. There was a big party afterwards, there was dancing. Joan was dancing with Edgar, and Garry was dancing with his wife, and this old Jewish woman danced up to Garry Shandling, not realizing Joan Rivers was right behind them, and she leaned into Garry Shandling and she said, “We thought you were much funnier than Joan.” And Joan turned her husband around, without missing a beat, and said, “You have no breasts,” and then danced away with Edgar.

So mean, so base, but the whole point is: You’re shaming me in my own place, and I’m going to go right for the jugular.

Joan Rivers

This is sort of a nonsequitir but it has to do with my feelings about Joan Rivers. I was recently talking with someone about Madonna. There is a world of Madonna Gays. I am not one of them. I love Madonna but I stopped paying attention after “Music.” There are Madonna apologists, you can’t say anything bad about Madonna, they lose their minds. I’m a bit of a Joan Rivers apologist.

Yes, she’s politically incorrect. Yes, she’s rude. Yes, she’s self-deprecating. Yes, she has had too much surgery. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I still love her. She’s a legend. She changed the game. She’s a trailblazer who’s still working at a certain level at her age. How many people of her generation have their own television show? Don Rickles doesn’t have his own television show.

Then there is the fact that Joan got her fortune back. Selling jewelry on QVC. Doing Hollywood Squares. There’s something about this woman as a business woman that I find unbelievably admirable. Everyone made fun of her for hawking her jewelry on QVC, and now, who DOESN’T have a line on QVC? Everyone snickered and sneered at the time, and now Mariah Carey does it, Jennifer Lopez does it, Gwyneth Paltrow does it … not that they personally sneered at Joan, but the idea that Rivers would have the gall, the lack of class, to go hawk jewelry that she thought was pretty – which, by the way, she stands by and wears all the time – and she did it anyway. She was a single mom with a daughter to raise. She made all her money back. Amazing.


SOM: I think the fact that the boys are all rallying around her on Twitter – that it’s not just the women – speaks volumes.

MF: Yes! I mean, Seth Rogen. He’s so current-generation goofball stoner boys club, and his Tweet says

I really need Joan Rivers to be ok.

The tone of Seth Rogen’s is the tone of a lot of them. In these tweets, is the idea that Joan would want her friends and fans to be like, “Get your ass up, Joan Rivers, because we are not done with needing you.” It’s almost selfish and it’s revealing the importance that she had for people, even those who don’t admit it because she’s not hip or politically correct.

Listen, there is an argument for being kind to each other and to not use words that hurt people’s feelings. But Joan is a social commentator, Will Rogers as a pit bull. She’s making a social comment with her shark-biting humor. It’s all absurdity to her. The absurdity of life, of the human condition. If she pulls out of this, the jokes that she’ll tell about it … I am so looking forward to it.

The Tweets from other comics reminds me of the poem that we love by Frank O’Hara.

SOM: “Oh Lana Turner we love you get up.”

MF: We need our Lana Turners to get up, we need our Joan Rivers to get up. Oh Joan Rivers we love you get up.


Later that week

Sadly, Joan Rivers did not “get up.” Here is the tribute I wrote to Rivers for Rogerebert.com.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “I was smart enough to go through any door that opened.” — Joan Rivers

  1. Brendan O'Malley says:

    Melody and I lucked into tickets to her one-woman show at The Geffen. It was a kind of memoir, a kind of play and a kind of stand-up special. All I know is she came out and started talking and within five minutes my face hurt from laughing so much. It lasted an hour and a half. She was unbearably funny. I was sweating. At one point Melody looked over at me and it was like we were on a roller coaster ride that, while enjoyable, was too much to take. I have never laughed harder in a theater than I did that night. So lucky to have seen her. A giant.

    • sheila says:

      Bren – ha! “I was sweating”. hahaha! I can’t even imagine how insanely nonstop funny she must have been.

      You are so lucky!

      I so miss her right now. Imagine what she would say about Ivanka and Melania.

  2. Brad Hall says:

    Speaking of the female gaze: Just glancing at the photos and I happened to notice just how expressive her eyes are. I had never noticed that before. From mischievous to angry to playful. And a softness in the one with her daughter. So many emotions. But they all say that she does not suffer fools.

    • sheila says:

      What a nice observation! yes, she was so expressive. I miss her presence in our insanely stupid current time. I just saw on Insta a clip of an interview she did with Howard Stern and she talked about how her daughter and Lisa Marie Presley went to the same grade school and he’d show up at Parent teacher conferences wearing a cape. “I loved him so much” she said. I had never heard this story before and I cannot vouch for it but I am choosing to believe it!

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