I’ve spent the better part of today trying to parse my feelings about Joan Rivers’ untimely death, trying to coax myself out of the deep denial I’ve been in since the news of her botched surgical procedure (unbelievably not one of the cosmetic variety, an irony I’m sure she would have appreciated.) Call me naïve, but I felt sure she would wake up and be touring again in the next couple of months, full of hilariously bitchy one-liners about how hideous the food in the hospital was and how the gowns look like something Tilda Swinton would wear to the Oscars.
So I’m kind of in shock, and still trying to work through it, but interestingly enough, I’ve found that the overwhelming emotion I’m feeling about Joan is not sadness, but fear. Simply put, I am terrified that Joan Rivers is dead. Alone among her generation of comedians, of performers, of anyone, really, she was timeless: a bulwark against age, against aging, against sexism, against irrelevance, against pretension, against taste. Her five-plus decade career was a constant against inconstancy. If death can happen to Joan, what hope do the rest of us have?
Of course, for all her tirelessness and cultural ubiquity, Joan was never an imperious super-being, gazing down at us peasants from her penthouse in the sky (although the Versailles-like grandeur of her apartment, as she herself would say, was reminiscent of “how Marie Antoinette would have lived, if she had money.”) My Facebook feed today has been lit up with stories of her kindness, her generosity, the encouragement she showed toward young talent. She was a fearless comic voice, a feminist trailblazer, and a shockingly honest voice in a sea of people who start kissing ass as soon as they get big.
But I think what I’ll remember most about Joan was how game she was, how great a sport. She could take anything she dished out. No gig was beneath her, no room too small. She was a true democrat in the small d sense of the word: performing was performing, and she didn’t give a shit where she did it: Broadway, Hollywood, The Tonight Show, QVC, the Laurie Beechman Theater under the West Bank Café, which sits about 75 people on a good night. It was all the same to Joan. She gave it her all no matter where she was; she just wanted to be where she was wanted.
We all wanted her. We still do. And I’m still hoping I’ll wake up to find this was all a bad dream.