The death of Joan Rivers sent me back to Christopher Hitchens’s notorious 2007 Vanity Fair piece, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” I had forgotten how idiotic it was. Women aren’t funny, Christopher argued—barring a few who are “hefty or dykey or Jewish”—because they don’t need to attract men by making them laugh. Women already have men’s attention, because they control sex. Look, boys, breasts! Also, women give birth to babies, and that makes them serious. Just ask Rudyard Kipling and Dr. Johnson, those noted experts on female psychology.
Joan Rivers contended with that mentality her whole life: like so many other things valued by society, comedy had a big No Girls Allowed sign on the door for most of her career. (Incredibly, she is still the only woman to have had her own late-night talk-show on network television—that was in 1986, when she ran in the same time slot as her mentor, Johnny Carson, who never spoke to her again; the show lasted seven months.) Women were, and to some extent still are, meant to be pretty and sexy and pleasant and deferential (as Christopher explained it, the male need for deference lets women control them all the more cleverly). They should laugh at men’s jokes, not make jokes themselves—especially dirty ones.
I wasn’t a huge Rivers fan. I love Jewish humor—Harvey and Sheila forever!—but Rivers’s brand was too misogynistic and self-hating for me. Some of her jokes at her own expense were like Catskills take-my-wife routines with the pronouns changed. “My best birth control now is just to leave the lights on.” “My love life is like a piece of Swiss cheese; most of it’s missing, and what’s there stinks.” Male comics mock their aging selves and flagging love lives too, but there’s usually some affection in there. But then, men don’t have to contend with the viciousness and contempt society visits on the aging female body. Aging, as in 35.
Rivers broke a lot of taboos—she made jokes about abortion back when you had to call it an “appendectomy,” and her early riffs on women and men in the dating game are still relevant: she’s an old maid at 30 (well, today it’s 35, so progress!); he’s a catch at 90, even if he’s dead (“Bring him along…! We’ll say he’s quiet”). But in later years, her comedy was less about ribbing misogyny than participating in it. Her plastic surgery was, face it, grotesque and sad. (But was the surgery actually a job requirement? I suppose you could see it as a kind of performance art. “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they’ll donate my body to Tupperware.”)
In her last act, Rivers specialized in bashing other female celebs—their looks, their clothes, their weight, their sex lives. Liz Taylor is fat, Lindsay Lohan’s a drunk. (Her cattiness got her an audience—her show Fashion Police was a hit for the E! network.) Sometimes the free-floating hostility and say-anything transgressiveness worked, like when she said of supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” The Anti-Defamation League thought that joke insulted Holocaust survivors, which I really don’t understand. Holocaust humor is a way of keeping the memory alive. Reverence entombs. In recent interviews, Rivers could say cruel and hateful and bigoted things as if they were daring truths: Palestinians deserved to die in Gaza; Hamas was “elected by a lot of very stupid people who don’t even own a pencil.” Like others praised as equal-opportunity insulters for whom nothing is sacred, Rivers was not always above kicking people when they were down. It’s just that one of those people was herself.