For my partner's birthday, I bid on a "Joan Rivers Experience" to benefit LIFEbeat, the music industry's response to AIDS; I have a spotty record of Joan Rivers fandom, but José is one notch below being a card-carrying member of her fan club. Plus, as Rivers would say, if they tell me it's for a disease, I'm in.
We took our friends Jason and Heidi to the Laurie Beechman on W. 42nd St., where she performs most Tuesdays. Her act is as uncharitable as they come, but the money earned for these small gigs—done to work out new material and get back to her roots—all goes to AIDS and to seeing-eye dog charities.
We had front-row seats at her feet—so close we were a bit nervous she'd involve us. The last act you want to find yourself drawn into is a Joan Rivers stand-up routine, right? But while that didn't happen, we were close enough to read her cue cards that were masking-taped to the stage, a testament to just how fresh the good were. (In fact, we only saw her glance down, smoothly, once.) I'd been wondering if her show would recycle all of the highly funny material from her recent David Letterman appearance, but nope—it was a combination of old chestnuts about Anne Frank and Helen Keller and very topical digs at "the tall, thin one" (Nicole Kidman), "the one with the lips out to here" (Angelina Jolie) and the hideous survivors of the Haitian earthquake. Yeah, those fugs really had it comin'.
The things that had turned me off about Rivers in the past were hearing the kinds of jokes like the one that John Lennon's killer would be a hero if he'd aimed a little to the left (which, despite it being evilly funny made me wonder about the limits of humor) and putting up with her fashionista schtick (I'm not into clothing, but I like my fashion criticism to come from people too chic to poop). But seeing her act was illuminating in a way even if I think there are no easy answers.
The bottom line is that I had fun. She's surprisingly energetic, and not just "for her age." She tore through the set with no pauses despite there being no real structure to rely on. And she's funny. I laughed at a lot of the material and smiled through a lot more of it. For me, the bits that work the best are the smartest (She has a simple take on Twitter throughout the ages that I would have loved to hear her riff on forever and her foray into religion..Christ was that funny!), the most dated (Who can resist a good June Allyson joke? Why should death spare anyone the wrath of Rivers?) and the most humorously taboo (her breast cancer gags will leave ya in stitches).
By "humorously taboo," I mean sensitive subjects that should never be joked about—unless the jokes are really funny. For example, she made Katrina into a laugh riot, but it was because she approached it from the perspective of her stage persona allegedly going down to New Orleans to try to save people from the safety of a posh boat. Kathy Griffin does this kind of thing well, too, as did the Seinfeld series: Spotlighting this malevolent persona reacting outrageously to the somber.
My personal criticism of her act is that she sometimes relies on simply being taboo, where the humor comes more from the shock that she would dare to say something. There were stretches when I was hearing nasty, nasty stuff (she never joked about AIDS or used the N-word, but those would have paled in comparison to some of it) without a creative punchline.
But this seems to be the point, the idea of turning every sacred cow into cheeseburgers.
I think her (ab)use of celebrities is where the essence of her approach works best because as she savages them (even stars you're not used to hearing maligned, like Sandra Bullock, Annette Bening and "that bitch" Betty White, who's stealing all of Rivers's jobs), she refers to them as her friends and that just underscores her stage persona's insincerity and jealousy and bile. The kind of person she's aping would today be akin to the people who haunt blogs as trolls—pure, unmodulated venom. But that makes it easier to relate to her because she and the trolls are us, albeit our darkest selves.
Her act wouldn't work if she were one of the pretty people, nor if she spared herself—she happily mocks her husband's death, a (real?) boyfriend's lack of a second leg and Jews (via more concentration-camp laffers than you've heard since that Stormfront get-together).
She made me laugh (the point) and also made me think.
We were taken back to meet Rivers by Chip Duckett (pictured), the man behind the auction. He treated us like visiting royalty, which embarrassed me in a welcome way. Meeting Rivers was the opposite experience from taking in her act—she was absolutely lovely, soft-spoken, thoughtful and earthy. She wished José a happy birthday, then she congratulated me on my blog; she seemed fascinated by how immediate everything is today. She indulged in some freebie Fashion Police banter with our guests, much to their delight. And when I asked her about Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, she said:
"I thought he was wonderful. I think they pay for someone to be outrageous, and you come, and you do your job—be outrageous—and then they all turn against you. And I find that terrible. There's such a clique and he dared to do jokes about Angelina...what did they think he was gonna do? You know his humor. In England, he always hosts the BAFTAs. Go look at the BAFTAs."
I couldn't agree with her more there.
Then we took pictures with her and she thanked me for supporting the charity.
I paid for an "Experience" and that's exactly what we got. It did feel like a brush with a legend, one you desperately hope will never turn on you!