To be a truly transcendent comic, you have to allow for the idea that sometimes even your biggest fans are going to hate you. It's easy to preach solely to the choir, telling it exactly what it wants to hear and what it's become used to, but that's the quickest road to hackdom and infamy for all the wrong reasons. It takes balls to risk the wrath of your audience and to take chances that may turn it against you. That's what Joan Rivers did. Whether you liked her humor or hated it, whether you found her obnoxious and offensive or hilarious and brilliantly incisive, you had to respect her.
For more than 50 years she relentlessly fired off one barb after another as if her life depended on it, never concerning herself with the possibility of "going too far." Nothing was sacred and little could be expected to be spared from her acid tongue. She treated every gig as if it could be her last and worked harder and smarter than just about anyone in comedy. She blazed a trail for other female comics while simultaneously scorching earth all around her, one shocking retort at a time.
Like all good comedy, hers came from personal pain and tragedy which she had the miraculous gift of being able to turn around and spin into uncomfortable laughter. And she figured that if she was fair game, so was everybody else. Even if her final days were marked by, maybe, a few moments of genuine anger and some legitimately eyebrow-raising commentary -- a CNN interview that ended with her storming out; her misguided statements about the civilian casualties in Gaza -- when measured against her half-century of celebrity, it stands out only for being the most recent memories.
Joan Rivers did plenty of material that I didn't like. But that doesn't change the fact that I and everyone else can go back through the years, all the way to her Tonight Show appearances with Johnny Carson and beyond, and find some of the most scathingly vital comedy produced by anyone ever. She earned her legendary status over the course of a career most comics can only fantasize about. And she did it largely by not giving a shit what anybody thought (whether somebody like me would love every bit of her material). That's a rare thing in our culture and yet, again, it's what good comedy relies on -- that dangerous willingness to stick a thumb in the eye of polite society. Joan Rivers did that, over and over again.
In fact, maybe this is the best response to the news of her death today -- certainly, the response she would have wanted:
So long, Joan. And fuck you.