comedian

Joan Rivers: Wicked Humor with a Jewish Touch

Joan Rivers in 2010. Photo courtesy David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons.
Joan Rivers in 2010. Photo courtesy David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons.

Joan Rivers, 81, the acid-tongued survivor of popular comedy and entertainment, died Sept. 4. Who could possibly find it funny?

Joan would have.

Humor, she said, was how she dealt with all life’s triumphs and defeats.

She once said, “I knew I was funny and I knew it was powerful” as early as 8 years old.

Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian immigrant Jews, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard. (“My mother wanted M.D. to stand for Make Dollars.”)

But she couldn’t get a door opened to the stage until she started making the gatekeepers — the agents’ secretaries — laugh.

She worked her way up through New York comedy clubs, over into TV and finally, after seven auditions, onto a stand-up stint on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” By 1983, she was Carson’s regular guest host until a bitter feud over her competing TV endeavors brought their friendship to an end.

Rivers’ first marriage ended in divorce; her second ended in tragedy when her husband killed himself. Even so, she said, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”

 

Pete Holmes Searching for Comedic Communion

Comedian and television host Pete Holmes. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Orange County Register/ RNS

For a period in his younger life, the host of The Pete Holmes Show on TBS, which debuted late last year and follows Conan on late-night TV, was on a trajectory to become a youth pastor.

“That’s why I went to Gordon,” Holmes said, referring to his alma mater — Gordon College in Massachusetts, an evangelical Christian school — during a conversation on my back porch in Laguna Beach earlier this month.

“I wanted to be a pastor. I was going to be a youth pastor. I mean, I play guitar, I like to make people laugh. … The skill set of pastor and comedian are incredibly similar. You want to affect people. You’re good at reading rooms. You’re persuasive and you’re likable.”

Misery Loves Comedy

Nadia Bolz-Weber

DURING MY EARLY years of sobriety, I spent most Monday nights in a smoke-filled parish hall with some friends who were also sober alcoholics, drinking bad coffee. Pictures of the Virgin Mary looked down on us, as prayer and despair and cigarette smoke and hope rose to the ceiling. We were a cranky bunch whose lives were in various states of repair. There was Candace, a suburban housewife who was high on heroin for her debutante ball; Stan the depressive poet, self-deprecating and soulful; and Bob the retired lawyer who had been sober since before Jesus was born, but for some reason still looked a little bit homeless.

We talked about God and anger, resentment and forgiveness—all punctuated with profanity. We weren’t a ship of fools so much as a rowboat of idiots. A little rowing team, paddling furiously, sometimes for each other, sometimes for ourselves; and when one of us jumped ship, we’d all have to paddle harder.

In 1992, when I started hanging out with the “rowing team,” as I began to call them, I was working at a downtown club as a standup comic. I was broken and trying to become fixed and only a few months sober. I couldn’t afford therapy, so being paid to be caustic and cynical on stage seemed the next best thing. Plus, I’m funny when I’m miserable.

This isn’t exactly uncommon. If you were to gather all the world’s comics and then remove all the alcoholics, cocaine addicts, and manic depressives you’d have left ... well ... Carrot Top, basically. There’s something about courting the darkness that makes some people see the truth in raw, twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all. Comics tell a truth you can see only from the underside of the psyche. ...

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God Won’t Mind If We Laugh at Ourselves

Photo by Karen Tapia/Orange County Register.
Director and screenwriter, Tom Shadyac, right. Photo by Karen Tapia/Orange County Register.

“I find hypocrisy all over our lives – especially mine – and certainly in the church. … I think Jesus loves everybody. Everybody. The second we call somebody a ‘nonbeliever,’ we have put a wall up between us and them. They are all children of God.”

With a wink and a crazy-eyed smile, Shadyac was, ostensibly, calling the crowd on its own … uh … baloney.

“Forgive me, I’m personally a little tired – God’s not, but I am – of khaki-wearing, Docker-delivering, Christianity,” he said. “If you’re out there in Dockers or khakis: God loves you, but I’m still a work in progress.”

And, when given the chance, Shadyac gently corrected the tacit implication that Hollywood is Babylon.

“You know what I would say to the church, to you guys, if I had to? ‘Come on. Let’s stop it,’” the director began. “We have become so whitewashed that when I literally say the word ‘ass’ – which is actually in the anatomical dictionary – because we are so born of the Puritan fear [you freak out]. Guess what? God made the ass. He made the ass.

“You’ve just gotta get over that. I don’t believe the world is godless. Because if I believe in omnipresence and omniscience, and I take the Word at its word, that God is in EV-ERY-THING,” he said. “When another person is loving another person, God is all over their lives. I don’t need to judge them and to tell them where God is in or out or what words they need to say. That is not up to me.”

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