Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Rivers of Laughter

With Ebola outbreaks, Russian aggression in Ukraine and ISIS beheadings of American journalists, we need a good laugh. Remembering the unmistakable humor of Joan Rivers may be just the tonic we need to crack a smile.

1986+JOAN+RIVERS_39500909_443234Rivers, who died today at age 81, was an original. Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin left their comedic mark through their funny characters. Rivers was a funny character.

She could deliver one-liners as fast and funny as any one, often with punch lines aimed at herself  – “A peeping Tom looked through my window and pulled down the shade.”

Her breakthrough came in 1965 on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His deadpan delivery juxtaposed to her stiletto lines was a lethally funny combination. It made her a star.

Ball, Burnett and Tomlin could look normal when out of character. You got the sense that Rivers was never out of character. When she gossiped – “Can we talk?” – there was no question who was in the middle of it all. Her face, her hair, her boobs were all fair game. “Oh, grow up!”

I became addicted to Carson’s brand of humor and infected by his rapport with Rivers. Homework suffered and sleep was sacrificed to see them together on late-night TV. They gave me a happy stomach ache from laughing so hard.

In the 1980s, when I was too busy to watch late-night TV, Carson and Rivers split after she accepted a lucrative talk show gig on Fox. Her show flopped, her husband-manager fell into depression and committed suicide and Rivers became estranged from her daughter. It must have been hard for her to dream up jokes.

Somehow, she did. At a grief seminar two years later, Rivers touted the power of positivity, quipping, “One, I don’t live in Bosnia. Two, I never dated O.J.” She even made wisecracks about her dead husband. “If Daddy were here to see these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.”

Nobody was big enough to escape her caustic gaze. Of Nancy Reagan’s hair – “Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”

We could use some of Rivers’ pushy humor right about now to ease the nation’s collective grumpiness. If nothing else, her face-lift-gone-bad looks, which resembled Heath Ledger’s Joker, would give us a reason for a belly laugh at the grotesque realities around us.

Joan Alexandra Molinsky became a great comedienne the hard way. Her parents refused to support her acting ambitions, so stand-up became her means to an end, until she realized here means were pretty good.

Working in backwater clubs convinced her she might be better off with a snappier name than Molinsky, so Joan Rivers was created.

"Twelfth Night" & "Richard III" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals And Curtain CallHer irreverent and sometimes breathless comedy was based on keen observation, which she may have learned watching her father, a Russian immigrant doctor, impersonate his patients. But her real talent was the ability to leap over any boundary to make a joke, even and especially at her own expense – her mother’s efforts to marry her off; an apology for killing her dog; the relentless alteration of her own face. Some people, like Jack Parr, found her brand of humor offensive. Most of us just found it refreshingly funny.

Her 50 years in show business was celebrated in a 2010 documentary titled, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”  She wrote a book called, “Diary of a Mad Diva.” Rivers said she was put on earth to make people laugh, which she did.

My favorite epithet for Rivers is “comic without a shut-off switch.” You never know when you need a good laugh.





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