Rivers Of Devilry, Oceans Of Pluck


If Robin William’s death occasioned much public angst about suicide and anxiety, including reams – more accurately prolixed scrollbars – of confessional identification (who could resist) Joan Rivers’ decease will surely cathect much schadenfreude on the dangers of endoscopy.

Or not. Celebrity deaths come thick and fast. One could be mistaken for thinking they’re knocked off with less impunity than… people who’ve recently died in mass atrocities it would be too offensive to name here.

But of course dead celebrities’ disproportionate media dissipation is due to the capacity of fame, on death, to funnel a lifetime of public exposure into one photovoltaic cell of reckoning.

Since they tend to sneak up on us, and rather imperiously can’t be scheduled to the news cycle, cultural pundits have to sit up to the wee hours compiling biograbs of their most memorable moments, stenographing as best they can from YouTube.

All try to fathom why this particular personage assumed the significance they did in our lives, that is, how we came to know them better than our own neighbours.

Once the dead luminary’s work over decades has been distilled into a clever epithet their ‘unique contribution’ then strap-lines the meaning of some notable aspect of them, say, plastic surgery.

Joan Rivers’ ‘brand of humor’ – she may have invented the notion – traded on transgression. It was as though at some point she sat down, listed off all the expressions of late-modern misogyny and decided the best way to exact her revenge was to embody them and mouth them off at their most extreme.

Rivers was the apocryphal ‘fright-bat’ of our times. If Greer kicked off her Female Eunuch arguing few women have any idea how much men hate them, Rivers might’ve replied (after making a few asides about Greer’s then over-plucked brows and perhaps something or other about her vaginal discharge), ‘Well, I dunno about you, bitch, but I came out of my mother’s fanny knowing that, and I’m gonna bust it apart with invective neologism and a complexion with more pin-back velocity than the Challenger space shuttle’ – though Rivers’ precision would lead her to a more raw and recent tragedy.

She understood with an intuitiveness about public forums that doesn’t bear analysis, that comedy bequeaths the supreme context for the dare-not, and the best laughs are preceded by a sharp intake of breath through a dropped jaw.

She knew how to get away with telling black women they looked like mud-slides naked while they recoiled in incredulity and convulsed in helpless hilarity. She knew they had to be laughing unstoppably already, the whole room had to be.

She may have made it look like a train wreck, but Rivers carefully established that context, which accreted over years simply to her presence.

Her strategy might go some way to explaining why the atomized but comparable tweets that got Catherine Deveny sacked from The Age bombed so resoundingly.

Rivers kept her best-worst lines for a room already in uproar. She harvested giggles like they were little fluffy male chicks on the conveyor belt to the grinder. She dropped them into their own visceral churn, dismembered and bloodied them and then made them laugh, in large part at their own gore.

Rivers was shocking. That was it. She complained about the lack of space in her bedroom by comparing it with the basement vault three young Cleveland women were imprisoned in, and then refused to apologize.

She said German-born model Heidi Klum looked as hot as Germans last did when they were pushing Jews into ovens.

Lindsay Lohan should ‘keep’ her miscarriage. Jennifer Lawrence had been more touched up than a choirboy at the Vatican. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s six month-old child was ‘desperately in need of a waxing’.

About ‘Octomum’ Nadya Suleman she said, ‘Oh, my God, just the size of her uterus scares me. She is like a log ride at Disney. The legs open, and wet, screaming children come out.’ She described a young actress’ outfit as so young, fresh and sexy it ‘screamed date rape’.

What have we here? In eye-watering order, there’s sexual slavery, the holocaust, miscarriage, pedophilia, ugly babies, birth and rape. Where’s the school shooting, the genital mutilation, the torture of children by the IS? We gotta ask, don’t we, is there some point that the fucking awful things humans do to each other, the truly appalling can never be funny.

It remains an open question thanks to Rivers and that was her genius (it is now requisite to bestow genius on the very rich and famous when they die, it’s really dumb, so I’m changing that to talent). She never said any of these things weren’t unimaginably hideous by making us laugh at their mention. Knowing perfectly well they were outside the limits of permissible comic exchange she opportunised on that very exclusion.

In the end Rivers’ humor was paradoxically unassuming. If she said only stupid Palestinians were recently being killed because they’d all been given phone warnings she rather sneakily wasn’t necessarily endorsing the IDF massacres, nor commenting on their disproportion.

She’d long projected herself as heartless and nasty and from the additional standpoint of an American Jew she lampooned the most banal and absurd part of IDF terror – the civility of a warning phone call before destroying someone’s family home and everything in it.

Post sexual revolution, post feminist, first nation and GLBTI movements, post civil rights, we’re not particularly clear on transgression and how it operates, besides knowing it’s co-opted into the ontology of consumption.

Rivers’ made it unambiguously and inexcusably comic. After working us into hysterics she dared us to turn and say, wiping tears, that’s just not funny.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.