On Thursday, Joan Rivers died of apparent complications resulting from a medical procedure. As Hollywood mourns the loss of one of its brashest and most gifted comedians, and news websites post images and videos from her long and hilarious career, I was reminded of an anecdote that succinctly captures her special appeal.
A few years ago, a friend of mine — herself a comedian, just beginning the arduous climb up the show biz ladder — found herself at Joan Rivers' sumptuous Upper East Side apartment for a Passover seder. Passover is often a solemn affair, with a story of slavery and sacrifice recounted during an often interminable dinner table service, as the aromas of so-close-yet-so-far-away brisket and matzo balls waft past the noses of the famished crowd.
But as my friend giddily relayed afterwards, Joan Rivers didn't do Passover like everyone else. A professional pianist was installed in the gilt living room, given a fake set of Orthodox Jewish payos to wear, and instructed to play only music written by Jews. Joan herself would ring an enormous bell when she wanted the next course of traditional delicacies to be served, and peals of laughter shot through the dining room as the matriarch presided over the evening.
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This was the quintessential iconoclasm of Joan Rivers: a woman who grabbed the man's world of comedy by the balls; a crass dame who constantly chafed against polite society; a careerist who wouldn't play by the rules of show business, not even for her close-friend-turned-enemy Johnny Carson; a "woman of a certain age" revered by the youth-obsessed fashion world; a widow who broke taboos by candidly discussing her husband's suicide; a constant seeker of the fountain of youth who never played coy with her plastic surgery past; an old lady who kept up Passover custom, but with talit-crinkling irreverence.
Joan Rivers was keenly aware of traditions — but she was never beholden to them.
She wasn’t fake, even if everything around her was: her mug, the world of starlets and gowns, and the self-obsessed upper echelons of entertainment. We loved her because she was loudly, impulsively, obnoxiously real — the jewel-encrusted needle that popped every inflated ego and carefully constructed image that she encountered.
"I think comics should be on the outside," Rivers told The Daily Beast in October. "If you’re on the inside, it’s over." Most of us were on the outside, too, laughing with her every day for tossing spitballs on our behalf.
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