Joan Rivers’ specialty brand of brazen, sharp-tongued, and gossipy comedy was unprecedented for women at the time of her debut in the early ’60s. But today, you can see glimmers of the Fashion Police icon’s style all over the comedy scene. Let’s break it down.
Female comedians now speak bluntly about their sexuality.
“When I started out, you couldn’t even say you were pregnant onstage, and now it’s all about vaginas,” Rivers told The Washington Post in September 2013. And she’s 100 percent right. Rivers broke boundaries for women with her early stand-up in the ’60s, where no topic was off limits——even her sex life. “I blame my mother for my poor sex life,” she mused in an early joke, according to CNN. “All she told me was ’the man goes on top and the woman underneath.’ For three years my husband and I slept in bunk beds.” This kind of humor is pervasive in female acts, from Amy Schumer, who has a 2012 stand-up show called Mostly Sex Stuff — to Rachel Feinstein. Time dubbed her a “groundbreaking feminist icon” because of this. Agreed.
Self-deprecation is everywhere.
But it wasn’t just her sex life. Rivers wasn’t afraid to make all aspects of her personal life the butt of the joke, in many ways pioneering the self-deprecation genre. In a 1974 stand-up routine, she called herself an “ugly, flat-chested little woman.” She continued this up until her later years, especially with her widely-reported plastic surgeries. “My body is a temple, and my temple needs redecorating,” Rivers cracked in 2012. You’d be hard-pressed to find comedians who don’t poke fun at themselves today — Louis CK, Kevin Hart, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho do it frequently. (See above.)
Celebrities are fair game.
Rivers revolutionized red carpet coverage and, as a result, became a trailblazer for celebrity-driven humor. No bad outfit or weight gain was off limits to Rivers, and this hit a fever pitch when she became the host of E!’s biting Fashion Police in 2010. Today, many comedians indulge in celebrity snark, particularly Kathy Griffin, who has made a career out of it. (My Life on the D-List, anyone?)
And, by default, so is being offensive.
Whether you loved or hated Rivers’ act, you have to respect how she was completely unapologetic. From making a crack about Adele’s weight to an inappropriate comment about the Cleveland kidnappings, Rivers wasn’t afraid to go there – and refused to apologize when she came under fire. While we didn’t always agree with her stubbornness (especially in the Cleveland case), you can’t deny that Rivers’ harshness paved the way for all comedians to test the limits. Chris Rock made jokes about 9/11 during a Saturday Night Live monologue last year.
Gossiping is now an acceptable comedic style.
This goes hand-in-hand with the celebrity-bashing fare; Rivers was also one of the first comedians to employ a, “Can we talk?” style. (In fact, that exact line became her trademark in her early stand-up years.) Instead of a scripted, rehearsed monologue, Rivers’ schtick always appeared off-the-cuff, as if you were having cocktails with your funniest girlfriend. Griffin’s stand-up has a similar vibe, in addition to Sykes, Schumer, and Iliza Shlesinger.
Let us know your favorite Rivers moments in the comments below.