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Z on TV
Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV
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Remembering the Joan Rivers who broke down TV barriers for women [Appreciation]

I hope those who know Joan Rivers only from her work the last couple of decades on shows like “Fashion Police” will take the time to read some of the appreciations that talk about who she used to be.

Rivers, who died Thursday at age 81 after being on life support since Aug. 28, was a fearless, cutting-edge and transgressive comedian straight from Greenwich Village in the 1950s and ’60s, who made it possible for the likes of Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman to be so welcome on TV today.

When Rivers graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College in 1954, there were virtually no female standup comics on television. And that situation, rooted as it was in the intense patriarchy and sexism of the era, would hold for more than a decade even as TV became flooded with variety shows featuring standup comics — male standup comics, that is.

Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett certainly became huge stars on television in the 1950s and ’60s. But they weren’t standup comedians. They were comedic actresses known for physical comedy.

Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley were the most prominent women working at the time as standup comics. All three were brilliant and confrontational in their own ways. But Rivers was the one who eventually broke through — the one who made it possible for women to stand in a public place and talk about sex just like men. Well, almost just like men, at first.

If you saw her early performances with Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show,” or later, when she started to make it on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” you were struck first by her manic energy and neurotic demeanor.

“Can we talk?” she would all but screech. And what women in the audience knew she meant is, “Can I dish?”

And dish she did, ripping stars of the day like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton -- more Taylor than Burton. But she ripped no one more than herself, peppering her routines with jokes about her breasts, how undesirable her husband found her and how unrewarding their sex life was because of her alleged failings.

The jujitsu she had to perform in 1950s and ’60s America to be able as a woman to talk frankly and satirically about sex in public will make most who are not familiar with that era shake their heads in wonderment today. Some will simply not understand how she had to mock and even humiliate herself to bring women into the public conversation about sex.

At a time when male comics routinely went on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the biggest stage in American popular culture, and made jokes about their wives, she had to make jokes about herself. It’s no accident that neither Fields nor Mabley nor Diller nor Rivers were considered attractive in the mainstream conventional definition of femininity of that time. The terms “loud” and “brassy,” adjectives also used to describe women who worked in burlesque and vaudeville, were used by critics to describe all four.

The breakthrough for Rivers, who had been working in nightclubs like the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, came in 1965 when she appeared on “The Tonight Show,” which was hosted by Johnny Carson.

Carson’s starmaking power in the world of comedy was immense, and he not only made her a regular guest, he also gave Rivers the chance to be substitute host on many occasions while was away.

As her star rose in the 1960s and ‘70s, side by side with the women’s rights movement gaining mainstream traction, Rivers started to bite back at the male ego with her raunchy wit. It made her an even bigger star in Las Vegas, where, by 1980, she had a huge contract at the MGM Grand Hotel.

In 1983, she was officially designated substitute host for Carson, making her one of the most powerful figures in show business.

It was also, though, the beginning of the end of Rivers’ remarkable rise.
In 1986, the fledgling Fox TV network convinced her to sign on to host a late-night show that would compete against Carson’s NBC juggernaut.

She reportedly never told Carson about the offer before taking it. And he never talked to her again after she joined Fox. Carson felt a deep sense of betrayal, and while the details of such matters might never be known, within a year, Rivers’ career was in tatters.

Her show on Fox bombed and was cancelled. Her Las Vegas contract was not renewed. Her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who was also manager at the time, committed suicide in 1987. And Rivers spoke openly about how close she came to taking her own life in those dark days.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of Rivers’ professional life was coming back after that kind of personal tragedy.

In 1989, she resurfaced with a syndicated daytime talk show. In 1994, she and daughter Melissa starred in a made-for-TV movie about their lives, “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.”

The two started on the E! Channel in 1996. The dish of the 1960s turned to the diss of the Internet age on the red carpet for all the major awards shows. It continued with “Fashion Police,” which Melissa produced.

I trust Joan Rivers won’t be remembered only for this last chapter of her life. The TV persona viewers saw on the red carpet on E! was mostly snark, attitude and insult humor. Rivers was bigger, smarter and culturally far more important than that. Maybe she was playing down to the world of basic cable.

But the young Joan Rivers who burst on the small screen in the 1960s was something to behold: a smart, college-educated woman, with a very sharp tongue who could talk every bit as fast and funny as the men who thought they owned the stage all to themselves.

She was one of the women who changed that.

“Here’s a woman, a real pioneer for other women looking for careers in stand-up comedy,” David Letterman said in a statement Thursday. “And talk about guts – she would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just where you would have to swallow pretty hard… but it was hilarious… the force of her comedy was overpowering.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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