Comedy and Consciousness

Can we laugh at Joan Rivers?

Watching Joan Rivers squawk obscenities on her late night TV talk show, any politically correct feminist would label such pandering to the public as crassly commercial and dangerously exploitative of women.

Rivers’ TV show and night-club performances, however, do not allow us to glimpse the far more complex and interesting Rivers revealed in the comedienne’s recently published autobiography, Enter Talking (New York: Delacorte Press, 1986; written with Richard Meryman).

I’m not asking feminists, and in particular Jewish feminists, to enjoy Rivers’ bad-mouthing: but I am insisting that we not dismiss her autobiography as so much more sexist dreck. The woman deserves to have her story heard.

Rivers is a nice Jewish doctor’s daughter trained to become a lady. Like many children of the 1940’s and ’50’s, she grew up with a workaholic father and a dependent, depressed mother in a home where no authentic feelings of love, hate, rage or joy were exchanged.

The Molinsky family, first of Brooklyn, later of Larchmont, clung to assimilationist ideals and tried to fulfill the immigrant dream of upward mobility. They successfully climbed the de rigeur ladder, yet like many of the nouveau riche; never took financial ease for granted.

Rivers’ father was no doting provider who lavished furs and jewels upon his princesses, but, rather, treated his family with harsh niggardliness. And just underneath the illusion of elegance Rivers’ mother somehow kept up, was the terror of poverty, deprivation and homelessness, common to Eastern European immigrant Jews.

In Rivers the terror lives on. Enter Talking documents how she learned to channel her overwhelming fear and insecurity into socially constructive forms of behavior. Releasing childhood pain through receiving audiences’ adulation enabled Rivers to satisfy her hunger for attention and security. This power of performance fueled and continues to be the major force driving Rivers’ obsession to succeed.

Jewish feminists who insist that Rivers’ performance as a stand-up comic reinforces patriarchal mentalities are not incorrect. Sure she does. Sure Rivers bought into the mainstream and upholds its values. Certainly she could not have achieved stardom had she not tailored her performance persona to the sexist mannequin of TV land.

Understanding that she did so out of the very same Jewish instinct for survival which propelled so many male members of her generation into the legal and medical professions—and stand-up comedy as well—we must view her achievement—though not necessarily her performance—in a more empathetic light.

Until she was 32, Rivers experienced every imaginable form of rejection from an entertainment industry that had no use for females who were not either ingenues or mother-types. Dirt-poor and without familial support, Rivers spent nights in city Y’s and periodically lived out of her beat-up 1950 Buick.

She performed in the sleaziest of clubs for the lowest of pay and was sometimes cheated out of that, too. Bombing again and again and again, she nonetheless continued to stand up alone before frequently abusive audiences, and, as all stand-up comics must do, make herself utterly vulnerable.

Enter Talking undoubtedly possesses some self-serving moments; it is, after all, Rivers reporting on Rivers and is thus colored by her unique “take” on the story of her life.

Yet there is more than a grain of truth to the comedienne’s success story— obvious to any nice Jewish girl who has stopped aspiring to be the doctor’s wife, and dared to hear the sound of her own voice.

I, for one, am glad that Rivers chose not to follow the Mrs. Westchester Great Man’s Wife route which she saw as her only other option. I am grateful for the story of struggle, persistence and eventual victory which Enter Talking chronicles.

Young Jewish women currently performing the comedy club circuit talk about their own lives from a similar perspective. While many find Rivers’ performance persona objectionable and the content of her humor vulgar, they nonetheless appreciate her having broken down the doors barring women’s entrance into comedy.

Comedy is a powerful weapon, requiring highly developed verbal skills, a sharp mind, and the courage to speak the unspeakable. Capturing and sustaining viewers’ interests is an aggressive, controlling, unlady-like thing to do.

The rare woman who capably performs stand-up comedy gives spectators an image of female strength, regardless of the sexist or non-sexist slant of her material.

Watching Rivers, women subliminally take in that we can be in charge, we can be earthy and even coarse—no longer must we restrict ourselves to dainty circumscribed “feminine” behavior.

And watching Rivers speak the truth of her reality as she sees it, we come to believe in the power of women’s voices— regardless of what we think of their words.

Celia Y. Weisman, formerly an educator and director of the Jewish Women’s Resource Center, now works til the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She is writing a book on Jewish female stand-up comics.