Thank You, Joan Rivers, for Proving Women and Gay Men Like Comedy, Too

Rivers at Neiman Marcus in Chicago on May 27. (Photo via Getty)

Rivers at Neiman Marcus in Chicago on May 27. (Photo via Getty)

At an open mic, I run through my set with jokes about the Kardashians (their constant facial enhancements create a who’s-who guessing game every week), thigh gaps (do they whistle in the wind or what?) and pregnancy (I’m for it, but only so I’ll have an excuse to eat at Arby’s).

The audience in the tiny, dark club is almost all male, as usual. The guys chuckle appreciatively. They like my jokes, but they’re not really getting it. Lately, I say, I’m worried that I’ve only been going into Sephora for the compliments. Realistically, no dude is going to howl, “Wow, that’s so true!”

But two girls in the front row are doubled over laughing for most of my set. They’re girls like me: girls who had the historical American Girl dolls but didn’t grow up to be dorks. When I step off the stage, one of them whispers to me, “You were the funniest one all night.”

There are two types of people who will single me out after a set to tell me they loved it: women who enjoy wearing mascara, and gay men. It may not surprise you to learn that comedy clubs aren’t exactly crawling with those demographics. So I’ve never had a stranger say the word “funniest” in reference to me before. I find I love this lady’s compliment. It is easily my favorite yet, better even than the time my mom told me I could possibly be the next Oprah.

But if it was a regular night and there weren’t any women in the front, or the few women in the club were my polar opposites (which is more common), I would have had only polite chuckles as feedback. And polite chuckles are not good enough. I probably would have scrapped most of the set.

Of course, no one is obligated to laugh at my jokes if they don’t think I’m funny. I’m a relative newbie and could stand to improve a lot. That’s why I’m at open mics. Also, my sometimes tepid response from men has nothing to do with sexism. There are plenty of popular male comics who I don’t like. It’s usually because I don’t have the same experiences as them, not because I don’t think men can be funny.

Instead, the issue is that a person’s taste in comedy is as subjective as his or her taste in music. I can’t blame someone if I’m just not their style. But it does make me wonder. Is there an audience of people who truly understand the indignity that comes with realizing you accidentally bought a shirt from Forever 21’s special “contemporary” adult line for non-tenured high school teachers?

Comedy that appeals to every demographic is the Holy Grail. But there’s a difference between respecting a funny comic, and identifying with a comic’s worldview so much that you feel compelled to memorize their Google results until you’ve read every one of their Q&As with Splitsider nine times.

For me, that cathartic identification with someone’s work comes when a comic is verbalizing the same struggles I’ve endured. There’s a special bond between two people who know what it’s like to surreptitiously pick up Plan B while one’s mother is shopping for nail polish in aisle four, or to get called a slut for refusing to sleep with a stranger, or to be scarred for life by an overzealous Brazilian bikini waxer.

People like comedians to whom they can relate. But women who see themselves in me don’t usually hang out at open mics, so it’s tough to reach them. I do know they’re out there, though, and they’re funny and they love to laugh—not to mention, they’re a consumer group with plenty of disposable income. And a huge part of the reason why I know that is Joan Rivers.

To me, the late comic’s biggest accomplishment was demonstrating that it’s okay if your comedy isn’t geared toward straight men. Women and gay men are not a niche audience. She built one of the longest careers in show business by appealing to them.

In her 2012 comedy special, “Don’t Start With Me,” Joan Rivers had a joke about purposely dropping tampons from her purse so people would think she was still menstruating. She never could have said this in the 1960s, of course. In the beginning of her career, she focused on self-deprecating jokes about being ugly, fat and unmarriageable. It was only after she busted down the door for female comics that she could drop the self-deprecation and turn her focus outward toward society and, of course, celebrities.

The scene wasn’t just male-dominated when Rivers began her career. At that point, comedy simply was male. Her first review in Variety, from 1965, goes out of its way to note that her material was “evidently her own, as she has a wonderful command of it.” As if women were not only unlikely to write their own jokes, but also would have trouble memorizing someone else’s in a convincing way?

At that time, her self-deprecating jokes had to not only make people laugh, but also needed to coax the audience into accepting a girl who told jokes. The male comics of the time often joked about their undesirable wives. Ms. Rivers and fellow pioneer Phyllis Diller gamely responded with quips about how ugly, out-of-shape or generally unmarriageable they were. Even after she was married, Rivers swore her husband wouldn’t have sex with her.

This is a technique a lot of comedians still use—especially, I’ve come to notice, budding female comedians. It can work to get a male-dominated audience on your side. When a woman cracks a line about her umpteenth online dating failure, she’s instantly de-sexed and nonthreatening (unless she’s so attractive that it’s clearly a lie, in which case the audience turns on her immediately). The thought is that, sure, I might have breasts and a vagina, but I’m not using them, so don’t worry, I can be funny.

Jokes like this can be done well. But if that’s a comedian’s entire shtick, it can be grating. It’s hard to laugh at someone when you’re beginning to pity them. And the old-school roots of this brand of comedy bring to mind Jerry Lewis’s idiotic assertion that he can’t see women as funny because they’re meant to bear children. It’s 2014 and we’re allowed to enjoy our bodies and our brains at this point, thank you very much.

Rivers was over this brand of comedy by the middle of her career. Then, she moved on. After she’d established that women could be comics, she undertook another huge accomplishment: she made it okay for a woman to say mean things—and to profit from it.

This contribution wasn’t important because of her nastiness, necessarily, but because she was probably the first woman to go on television and admit that not every thought in her head was sweet or loving or self-deprecating or insecure. Aside from the often-cantankerous Elizabeth Taylor, who was a favorite Rivers target, where else could you find that kind of freedom of female expression?

So what led to the switch? Maybe she changed her style because pandering to male insecurity hadn’t quite worked out for her before. Johnny Carson loved her self-deprecating, why-can’t-I-get-a-husband shtick—but only while she was under his thumb. He hired her as the first female co-host of the Tonight Show. But when she landed her own hosting gig and stopped being his sidekick, he didn’t applaud his protégé. Instead, he banned her from the Tonight Show and used his connections to make it difficult for her own show to succeed. She was fired from her show after eight months—a dent in her pride that also reportedly contributed to her husband’s suicide three months later.

It’s not hard to see why after that debacle, she changed gears and took on television projects that catered explicitly to women and gay men, who understood her worldview and didn’t need her to apologize for being female before getting on with the jokes. And thank god she did. There’ve been times when “Fashion Police” was the only truly hilarious and unrepentantly female-oriented show on basic cable.

Rivers not only revolutionized red carpet coverage, but pretty much invented the fashion entertainment genre. She turned the actresses’ dresses into conversation pieces. Now, even women who’ll never afford Zac Posen are dying to know more about him and his designs. Designers, editors, stylists and models are TV stars in their own right. It probably wouldn’t have happened without Rivers’ red carpet specials.

Despite her contributions to the feminist cause, Rivers was described in Jonathan Van Meter’s definitive 2010 New York Magazine feature on her as being “ambivalent about feminism.” She didn’t talk much about equal rights, even though her jokes often dealt with the indignities, large and small, of being female in America.

“When I am onstage, I am every woman’s outrage about where they put us,” she told Mr. Van Meter for that piece. “We have no control. And that’s why I am screaming onstage! I am furious about everything. All that anger and madness comes out onstage.”

Figuring that Rivers was a tough lady who didn’t care what many other people thought, I was surprised in reading the Observer‘s own “Love Letters to Joan” that she was incredibly courteous and friendly with reporters. She seemed to respect journalists, which is rare for someone in the public eye.

When I thought about it, though, I also realized I’ve felt the same way about other comedians I’ve interviewed, such as Natasha Leggero, Matt Walsh, Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer. I’ve found that when comics come to an interview, they’re ready to actually talk and answer every question truthfully—or they’ll at least make up something hilarious. Comics understand you need a good story, and they want to help you make one. They have no interest in tricking you into writing something that jibes with some PR-sanctioned version of the truth, because comedians are all about exposing the actual truth—just like reporters.

Comedians and journalists are alike, after all. They remove themselves from a situation, identify the facts, tear away the bullshit and expose the core truth, whether the public wants to hear it or not. Comedians get to wrap the truth in humor, though. That’s why everyone likes them more.

Actors, on the other hand, can seem like fugitives on the lam during interviews. Their eyes dart back and forth, they dodge questions, they shoot their publicists terrified looks, hoping they’ll break in and save them from saying the wrong thing. They’re nervous that whatever they’re hiding—their true personalities? some secret affair?—might be found out.

Comics rarely have such secrets. It takes honesty and unrelenting self-scrutiny to construct a believable stage persona. And anyway, if you’re hiding a messy breakup or an undesirable upbringing, you’re just wasting good material.

Rivers not only allowed herself to be her own target. She also never let her friends off the hook (actually making her more ethical than most journalists). To borrow the Observer‘s motto, for Rivers, nothing was sacred but the truth. In the Van Meter profile, she said of Kathy Griffin, “I am her friend but also furious. She is the big one now. My club dates have simply vanished and gone to her…. Every time a gay man tells me, ‘Oh, she is just like you! I love her!’ I fucking want to strangle them.”

Rivers’ bold point of view and lack of a filter is inspiring to all comics, not just women. And her willingness to appeal to an audience other than straight white men is what’s most inspiring to me. My comedic skills are nowhere near her own. But knowing there’s an audience out there (somewhere) (seriously, where the hell are they?) who might feel relieved and included by listening to my perspective is what keeps me getting up onstage.

Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin in June 2013. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin in June 2013. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Thank You, Joan Rivers, for Proving Women and Gay Men Like Comedy, Too