When I was 10 my best friend was television. I’m quite aware television was friends with other children around that time, but it definitely preferred me and I’m sorry you had to find out this way. I spent so much time with the television that Mum, encouraging a very healthy relationship, had purchased Austar – a form of subscription television available only for those of us lucky enough to live an idyllic existence in the middle of fucking nowhere in regional Australia. I spent every afternoon doing homework in front of the TV (my nickname for it). I watched Nickelodeon and TV1 and The Comedy Channel, the latter of which had begun playing repeats of late night talk shows during the day.
When I was 10 I was first called a “faggot”. It was a word I hadn’t heard from television, of course not, we were best friends. It was a word so unfamiliar at the time I had to look it up in the dictionary. “A faggot is a bundle of sticks!!!” I proclaimed to my bully Chris the next day, proud at my literal cleverness. “No, you’re a gay faggot,” said Chris. Oh, that made more sense, I thought. It turns out it wasn’t the last time I was called it. It caught on. My last name literally rhymed with the word, almost as if to make the job easier for morons.
When I was 10 I saw Joan Rivers on an American talk show, on my best friend television, and I knew I had to be better. I’d heard the phrase ‘acid-tongued’ before, but had never seen it demonstrated in a master class such as this. Joan took on the stars of the day and I remember practically convulsing with laughter, the first stand up to ever make me fear for my own health. She was brutally funny. ‘A bundle of sticks’ wasn’t going to cut it. Joan showed me that you could be mean-funny and thank god, because it meant I saved face, I won occasionally without resorting to physical violence, but mostly I just got by without going home feeling humiliated and shitty every single day. School is war and you’ve got to use everything you have in your arsenal. Joan did.
When I was 16 I stayed home from the first high school party I’d ever been invited to because there was a Joan Rivers special on TV. I could get drunk and not have sex whenever I wanted. I knew where my loyalties lay.
Get ready to hear the word ‘trailblazer’ a lot, because, for once, it fits. Joan Rivers was a trailblazer. She burnt the shit out of that trail and anyone who followed was just walking on coals. And what a pleasure to see this old Ed Sullivan Show clip doing the rounds in the week leading up to her passing, a reminder of just how sharp she could be, of how much truth she could get away with, while your parents were still in nappies. She didn’t just tell her own truth, but she called out inane, self-serving celebrity bullshit that we might otherwise have mindlessly accepted without comment or critique. Celebrities can be monsters and Joan, though a huge celebrity herself, was also a torch-wielding villager. Without Joan, I fear celebrities might finally rise-up and kill us all.
She did everything, went everywhere. She wrote and directed a feature film in 1978. She was the first female comedian to ever appear at Carnegie Hall, the first to guest host The Tonight Show, the first to ever have her own talk show. She starred in a TV movie...as herself. She wrote books, she did Broadway, she conquered reality TV long before Ice and Coco, she never stopped working. To remember her simply as “that old woman that made fun of gowns” is akin to remembering Bette Davis as “Miranda Pierpoint from Wicked Stepmother”. If you are a 13 year old who hated Joan because she once said something less than kind about a Selena Gomez mullet dress, please go and watch this. If you are a comic who crowned himself King Feminist by disparaging Joan’s looks in the lame defence of another, please go and write some new material or consider another profession.
In the age of social media rage over every off-colour line, a rage that deems all context irrelevant, a rage that burns brightly and fades as soon as the next pun game-worthy scandal rears its ugly head, Joan mastered in the art of not apologising, of standing behind your joke, of standing your ground. It was a practice not always applauded, but an important one, particularly for women and gay men, who often feel the need to apologise not just for what they say or write, but for their existence in general. Joan led the pack and where others would raise a white flag, she raised her middle finger.
Yes, she was sometimes hard to defend, hard to love, but who isn’t? If you didn't let yourself enjoy her talent because you didn't appreciate some of her comments in later years, congratulations on setting yourself up for a joyless life. Joan was a comedian, not a guru, not a UN Peacekeeper, not your mother. It was never her job to parrot your political beliefs back to you. That is literally nobody’s job.
Thank you Joan Rivers for your courage, for constantly selling shit on QVC but never selling-out, for being funnier than anyone has any right to be. Now, I’m going to go and spend some quality time with the television.