Joan Rivers’ gift: Wicked humor with a Jewish touch

Print More
Joan Rivers at the Heller Awards 2013 at Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Helga Esteb via Shutterstock

Joan Rivers at the Heller Awards 2013 at Beverly Hilton Hotel on September 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Joan Rivers in 2010 at Musto's 25th anniversary party.

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Joan Rivers in 2010 at Musto’s 25th anniversary party.

(RNS) Joan Rivers, 81, the acid-tongued survivor of popular comedy and entertainment, died Thursday (Sept. 4). Who could possibly find it funny?

Joan would have.

Humor, she said, was how she dealt with all life’s triumphs and defeats.

She once said, “I knew I was funny and I knew it was powerful” as early as 8 years old.

Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian immigrant Jews, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard. (“My mother wanted M.D. to stand for Make Dollars.”)

But she couldn’t get a door opened to the stage until she started making the gatekeepers — the agents’ secretaries — laugh.

She worked her way up through New York comedy clubs, over into TV and finally, after seven auditions, onto a stand-up stint on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” By 1983, she was Carson’s regular guest host until a bitter feud over her competing TV endeavors brought their friendship to an end.

Rivers’ first marriage ended in divorce; her second ended in tragedy when her husband killed himself. Even so, she said, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”

She moved on to a series of shows, including the 1990-Emmy-winning “Joan Rivers Show” and ultimately her stint as the sheriff of “Fashion Police.” On that show, and in her @Joan_Rivers Twitter feed, she was merciless about celebrities’ style and foibles. Her favorite compliment: “You say what I think.”

She was slinging smart lines at Beyonce, Solange and Jay Z on Aug. 27.

That was just days before a heart attack during an outpatient medical procedure left her silent. Her final days were spent in a coma in Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

She always wanted to be a good-looking corpse, she said, in one of her frequent digs at her own plastic-surgery-enhanced self.

But she had a giving nature. Her philanthropies included Jewish causes, AIDS charities and foundations that benefited animals.

She made Jewish culture a touchstone of humor with quips such as:

“I’m Jewish. I don’t work out. If God had wanted us to bend over, He would have put diamonds on the floor.”

Rivers would say, “Comedy is truth. … You’re going to get what I think is the truth and it’s going to be raw.”

How raw? Last year she was called out for making a Holocaust joke at the expense of German supermodel Heidi Klum.

Admiring Klum’s Oscar gown, Rivers said, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”

Later, she told CNN: “It’s a joke. … That’s the way I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humor. … My husband lost his entire family in the Holocaust, so let’s just start with that. Your generation doesn’t even know what I’m talking about.

Go after the real anti-Semites, she said. She was equally fierce in support of Israel.

In one of her last interviews with Israel’s Channel 10 two months ago, she tore into young celebrities who were supporting Hamas in the Israel-Gaza conflict.

“These girls should shut up, put on pretty clothes and get themselves off of drugs and leave me alone. … No matter what Israel does — and we are so right and so honorable — you want to shake people and say, ‘Have you lost your minds?!’”

As accolades poured in from her “Fashion Police” co-hosts and leading lights of comedy and entertainment, Rivers still seems to have had the last word. A quote that outlives her: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is God’s gift, that’s why we call it the present.”


  • Fran

    It is so sad to hear that Joan has passed away. She was such a unique and hilarious person who brought so much laughter to me and many others through the years.

    It is comforting for me to know, however, that Joan is resting or sleeping in death, not feeling any pain (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10), and that she has the marvelous hope of resurrection back to life on a cleansed earth, to be reunited with Melissa, other family and friends, and the rest of us who enjoyed her so much (Acts 24:15; John 5:28,29).

    This will be accomplished through God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) in the near future, and it will also put an end to all sickness, disease, old age and death (Revelation 21:1-4).

    We can then enjoy laughing with her again!!

  • Lles Nats

    She made jokes about the subject of modern jewishness. Since she was a jew, it was not antisemitic. Therefore, she could do it. It does not mean her comedy had “a jewish touch”.

    She just simply was not pursued as an antisemite because she was a jew. Free hall pass…essentially.

  • Richard summer

    Nats- The word is perceived, not pursued.

  • Fran

    She cracked me up about a lot of things, whether they were Jewish or not; and I still love her, even though I am not Jewish.

    Laughter has become almost unheard of in this planet of ours, because there is not much to laugh about, unless you see a funny video on Facebook.

  • Pingback: 'Love Jihad' and spiritual conversion polarise in Modi's India | Ecircassia()

  • Jon

    So Fran thinks that according to Christianity, Jews are saved, even though they reject Jesus?

  • Xnihilo

    Arrogant. Brash. Vulgar. A walking talking stereotype. RIP.

  • Larry

    And she knew how to deliver The Funny.

    No greater praise can be given to her.

  • Larry

    No more offensive than African-Americans using the “n-word” when addressing each other. You are allowed to make jokes at the expense of your own group. That is forgivable self-effacement. When someone else does it, it is mean-spirited and defamatory.

    When Mel Brooks finally passes, he is exempt from the same criticism for the same reasons.

  • Larry

    That belief certainly didn’t help the family of her second husband, Edgar Rosenberg.

  • Lles Nats

    Thanks. I actually meant pursued, as in chased down, but perceived works well to.

  • Lles Nats

    A least your honest about your personal and group double standard. I bet you don’t mind turning that double standard into an event of legal consequence either. Whereby people who express similar opinion content but of a different ethinic or minority grouping suffer loss of actual freedom due to opinion they hold relative to their group.

    So here’s Larrys rule for society. Please take note. Understand the thoughts your group is allowed to have before thinking them, please. And to do that, you must first accurrately understand your racial category and behave accordingly. No individuals please. We will sue if ya fall outta prescribed thought and speech guidelines.

  • Larry

    Its a single standard. The basic rule of civilized behavior concerning the “funny”
    Making fun of one’s self = amusing
    Making fun of others = mean spirited

    You just want an excuse to act like a horse’s posterior. Looking for an argument where no sane one exists. You are free to think whatever you want. Just as I am free to call you an idiot for doing so. 🙂