Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 6, 2014

Joan Rivers

Filed under: comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:57 pm

Like most people on the left, I found Joan Rivers’s comments about Gaza reprehensible just like Howard Stern’s. That being said, I admired Joan Rivers for most of her career and remain a fan of Howard Stern. Both are quintessentially Jewish comedians who, like me, thrive on self-deprecating humor—the same kind found in Rodney Dangerfield and Woody Allen (at least when he was still funny.)

I first encountered Joan Rivers in the mid-60s when she was making appearances on the Tonight show and Ed Sullivan. As a standup, her act contained sharp observations about middle-class Jewish life as the Youtube clip above indicates. Her shtick was all about undermining Jewish-American Princess (JAP) values. In making jokes about the pressure on Jewish women to be married, she was actually helping to show the absurdity of middle-class values. It was not just pressure to get married; it was also the pressure that Jewish women came under to procreate. A large part of this had to do with propagating the Jewish tribe, a value that I came to reject after hooking up with the Trotskyist movement.

Rivers was not a topical comedian. That is why it was unfortunate that her remarks on Gaza were given such play. I have seen her perform on television dozens of times and she never had much to say about the heads of state, except for this sort of thing:

On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: “Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”

On Queen Elizabeth II: “Gowns by Helen Keller.” “Nice looking. Not at all like her stamp. Wears her watch over the glove, though — tacky.”

The NY Times obit, from which the two quips above were found, also mentioned:

Even the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were not off limits. “A few days after 9/11,” Jonathan Van Meter recalled in a 2010 New York magazine article, “she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground.”

Joan Rivers was no dummy. She graduated from Barnard College in 1954 with a degree in English. I don’t know if that was any kind of preparation for a career in comedy but her ability to wisecrack about anything and everything demonstrated fast-firing neurons.

The Times obit mentions that she was a member of the Second City troupe in Chicago in the early 60s. For those in the know, this was a breeding ground for some of America’s most accomplished comedians including Mike Nichols and Elaine May. To make it in Second City, you had to be really hip.

I lost track of Rivers over the years but more recently became a fan of her cable TV show “Fashion Police”. The show consisted of her and a panel making rude remarks about how celebrities were dressed. This is clip from that show and vintage Joan Rivers (“the first man ever to masturbate to a Madonna video just started collecting social security”).


  1. “…propagating the Jewish tribe, a value that I came to reject after hooking up with the Trotskyist movement.”

    The imagination reels.

    Comment by originalsandwichman — September 6, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

  2. I’m sure she’s got ’em rolling in the aisles down in Hell.

    Comment by John B. — September 6, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

  3. There’s an old County Joe (of the Fish) concert monologue in which the left rocker/singer/songwriter offers a postscript on a witty little song of his, which is directed ironically at both mass American consciousness and the American left, depending, of course, on how one interprets the song. The song itself is not much more than him singing “We love the _______________________ (fill in the blank with any radical, enemy, group or individual)” three times, followed by “deep down in our hearts. I said deep, deep, down, down, deep down in our hearts.” Joe begins with the Viet Cong, moves on to the Pathet Lao, Che Guevara, Angela Davis, Mao Zedong and further on and out from there. In the monologue, he describes to the audience a recent concert where he sang the song and where a huge, long-haired, bearded guy stood in the front row cheering him on and whooping loudly every time Joe sang out a new name. But when Joe sang about Mao, the guy started booing. Joe’s analysis? “Well, I guess everyone has their limits.” All of which is by way of saying that you lost me at Howard Stern. He shares with Joan a sense of Jewish self-mockery and sometimes an aggressive vulnerability with which Jews of a certain time and places, and across the political spectrum, strongly identify. Both are also ardent Zionists and political reactionaries. But Stern, perhaps because of his talk show format and give and take with a call-in audience, was mean-spiritted and superior in way that Joan, at least on stage, was not. I also cannot stand the manner in which Stern grafts 60’s counter-culture libertarianism onto the bigotry he frequently spews. I have no problem recognizing Joan Rivers’ talents, though she was clearly never in the category of greater female comedians such as Moms Mabley, Lily Tomlin, or even Sandra Bernhardt, not mention giants such as Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and Lenny Bruce. However, while separations between art and politics must sometimes be made, I’ll be damned if, as a radical, I celebrate her life achievements. Nor, in my humble opinion, should you.

    Comment by burghardt — September 6, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

  4. Sorry, fellows. I don’t allow someone’s politics to determine whether I become a fan or not. I love V.S. Naipul and Evelyn Waugh novels. I also love the poetry of TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. I laughed out loud at Ali G. and Fawlty Towers, even though most leftists hated these shows. Joan Rivers made me laugh. In my life I have tried to grab pleasure wherever I can. You are free to pick your own entertainment.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 6, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

  5. That Ed Sullivan Show monologue is superfically funny. She articulates the grievances of a certain kind of middle-class woman’s grievances well enough.

    But you might also title it “First World Problems.”

    What happens that that kind of feminist once she’s “made it?” Can see ever feel the same kind of compassion for a woman in Gaza who lost all her kids as she does for a woman in Larchmont who’s feeling anxious because she’s not married to the “appropriate” man at 22?

    Or does she begin to identify with the very right wing, patriarchal society she used to mock?

    Comment by srogouski — September 6, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

  6. Christ I can’t type today. Must be all those drugs.

    Comment by srogouski — September 6, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

  7. But you might also title it “First World Problems.”

    Exactly. If you are looking for a comedian who is attuned to third world problems, you start with Palestinian comedians. I happen to be from the Jewish middle-class and used to get the same kind of nonsense from my mother about getting married and making her a grandmother. 12 years ago I married a women with distant Muslim roots (her parents were irreligious Kemalists) and who had zero interest in bearing children. My mom was okay with this because she saw were made for each other.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 6, 2014 @ 10:14 pm

  8. The problematic thing about Joan Rivers is that while she mocks Jewish middle-class values, she never questions Jewish middle-class support for Israel.

    Try to imagine Bill Hicks mocking redneck values and yet never mocking evangelical Christianity.

    He’d be Jeff Foxworthy.

    Comment by srogouski — September 6, 2014 @ 10:26 pm

  9. Why would leftists hate “Fawlty Towers”? It’s a brilliant show, and I would think any show that mocks pretentious, arrogant social climbers and snobbery would earn acclaim from the average Marxist. Louis, please tell me you enjoy “Keeping up Appearances.”

    Also, Joan Rivers’ latter-day sins and ridiculous plastic surgeries shouldn’t cover up the fact that she was a talented joke writer and stand-up comedian (and remained so) who worked blue in the ’60s before it was acceptable for female comedians, and she was talented enough to become Johnny Carson’s regular guest host. How many comedians, male or female, earned that spot in those days? I also admire that she refused to apologize for jokes due to political correctness.

    Comment by Cal — September 7, 2014 @ 5:02 am

  10. You’re setting up a straw man, accusing at least some here of a dogmatism we lack. The issue is not whether one rejects Joan Rivers’ comedy because one rejects her politics. The issue is whether obituaries should celebrate her accomplishments while ignoring the racism and conservatism that marked, not just her political views, but increasingly her comedy routines as she grew older. “Prufrock” is a great poem and “A Handful Of Dust” a great novella, but their compelling critique of bourgeois life is not wholly separate from an elitism — or what Marx might have called a feudal socialism — mired in a variety of odious prejudices. We’d want people considering this work to be aware of that, just as we’d want many apolitical people to know that the Joan Rivers’ whose irreverence they admire was sometimes a firm defender of inequality as well.

    Comment by burghardt — September 7, 2014 @ 11:08 am

  11. “I laughed out loud at Ali G. and Fawlty Towers, even though most leftists hated these shows.”

    That surprises me, in Europe leftists tend to love these shows? I even laughed at Borat, especially when upper class British folk were teaching him to play cricket.

    Comment by Simon Provertier — September 7, 2014 @ 11:17 am

  12. Burghardt: You previously stated that Joan Rivers was never in the category of great comedians, when her career and comedic influence suggests she was. She personally amused me more than Moms Mabley, Sandra Bernhard or Lily Tomlin ever did. (If those women agreed with Joan on Israel/Gaza, would you hate them too? Bernhard’s pretty outspoken on her Judaism.) I’m fine with presenting an honest portrait of her, but the previous commenters, which I was responding to, were dancing on her grave and condemning her to hell because she said things they disagreed with during a 6-decade career. Hardly a fair or balanced evaluation, as I’m sure she pissed off just as many conservatives and reactionaries as liberals. Howard Stern has been frustrating me lately because he’s turned into the 1-percenter Hamptons elitist he used to ridicule, but when he dies I won’t forget the countless hours of entertainment he provided me over the years.

    I guess I have to echo LP: “In my life I have tried to grab pleasure wherever I can. You are free to pick your own entertainment.”

    Comment by Cal — September 7, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

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