After Joan

It's our first awards season without Joan Rivers. But life – and the red carpet – go on.

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I never thought I’d watch it after Joan was gone. I’m talking Fashion Police — a show on E! whose raison d’etre is to extol and goof on gowns at red carpet events — after the death of its presiding spirit, Joan Rivers. Truly, a profoundly shallow and frivolous entertainment, but one that I acknowledge I became modestly addicted to.

   

I hereby confess that I like looking at gowns. The only thing that gets me to go to the supermarket is the chance to peruse In Style magazine for the line-up of Gwyneth, Julia, and Jennifer (several of them) in gowns split up from or down to the navel, and to study the comparative pix of Kim Kardashian and Gwen Stefani in the same outfit, accompanied by reader-response percentages as to who wore it best. This interests me for reasons that I cannot explain, seeing as it is far from my area of expertise: the late work of Henry James.

Perhaps I find these things of interest for the same reason that I like literary parsing. Gowns are artifacts available to be analyzed. But I hardly think I would have begun watching Fashion Police if Joan Rivers hadn’t brought her particular zest to the proceedings.

That’s what I loved about her — her interest in fashion was a vehicle for expressing her interest in life. To cite Henry James in The Ambassadors (N.B.: this may be the only instance in which James’s name appears in the same sentence with Joan Rivers’): “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life.” There it is: it doesn’t so much matter what you do — just live. Joan did.

It was her irrepressible sense of life that made her death, the result of a botched routine throat procedure, so disturbing to so many of us. She was an octogenarian, to be sure, but she seemed like she would live forever. Her extensive plastic surgery made her cyborgian — someone who could simply go on replacing parts.

There she sat, a seeming perennial, amidst her Fashion Police posse, her body draped in some outlandish designer garment, an enormous necklace that would have strained the neck of a lesser woman ornamenting her bosom, her face as smooth and white as a Kabuki mask. All the while, a steady stream of potty humor issued from her gloss-lipped mouth.

On Christina Hendricks in a low-cut gown:

Three of the most talented girls in Hollywood just walked past. She needs a milking stool.

On an outfit she doesn’t like:

That dress is fashion birth control.

On aging and fashion:

The fashion magazines are suggesting that women wear clothes that are ‘age appropriate.’ For me that would be a shroud.”

On her dead husband:

My husband wanted to be cremated. I told him I’d scatter his ashes at Neiman Marcus — that way, I’d visit him every day.

When her guest in one episode was Miss Piggy, the repartee was predictable:

Joan: I like your snout.
Miss Piggy: I like yours.
Joan: Which one?

When she hosted Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, she had him strip down to his speedo, then led him through the building, cameras trailing, to the fountain in front where she waded in and had him squat down beside her “to pee.”

Could anything be more puerile, but also more exuberant and life-affirming?

The fact is that I liked Joan Rivers more for her chutzpah than her humor. I became a fan after watching the 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. It showed a woman who had suffered some of the hardest knocks that the industry had to offer. She had clawed her way into standup at a time when women weren’t supposed to be funny. After she was a favored guest and guest host for Johnny Carson, he peremptorily cut her off when she landed her own show on a competing network. That show quickly failed and her husband, its producer, disconsolate, committed suicide. Through it all, she continued to work.

One of the most telling moments in the documentary is when she pulls out a file cabinet that contains her jokes, carefully preserved and collated over the years and demonstrating that she continued to be the conscientious student that she was at Barnard College sixty years earlier. Everything was grist for her comedy, from her husband’s suicide, to her daughter’s “issues,” to the effects of aging on her body and her efforts to curb or at least disguise them.

But what I think gained her the most fans and accounts for the outpouring of grief that followed her death was the love she projected, even as she eschewed sentimentality. It came through in her reality show, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? What should by rights be an exploitative, unseemly endeavor — making public her daily life with her daughter and grandson — somehow surmounted the tackiness of the genre even as it reveled in it. The show about a Hollywood diva and daughter living with a group of hangers-on in an LA house managed to be a moving depiction of the fraught but loving relationship between mother and daughter.

Likewise, Joan’s affection for her co-hosts and guests on Fashion Police was always an undercurrent to the show, evident in small comments and larger dramatic gestures (as when she has Kelly Osbourne eat a hamburger out of her mouth in parody of a celebrity mom who chews her infant’s food).

Joan Rivers was an original, so how could she be replaced?

The answer is: she can be. Joan would probably be the first to say we all can be. Life goes on and you live it with what comes to hand. In this case, someone else as the host of Fashion Police.

I can report, in fact, that Kathy Griffin takes up the Joan Rivers mantle with an almost seamless grace — if such a word can be applied to inherently tasteless comedy. Griffin actually looks like a younger Joan and has a similar, if less obtrusive, liking for plastic surgery. But she is also a different kind of comedian. Joan would do anything for a laugh; Kathy seems more measured and artful. The show also has more coherence now — it doesn’t indulge in the sort of antic humor that characterized Joan’s spontaneous eruptions. Instead, the comedy is more sustained while also being more focused on the fashion. The posse is similar — Kelly Osbourne and Guiliana Rancic remain, with the de rigueur gay fashionista George Kotsiopoulos replaced by a more sartorially flamboyant and sockless Brad Goreski. Everyone is still prone to refer to gowns, worn by iconic figures like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, or Joan Collins (another Rivers-like cyborg) as “perfection.”

No doubt many people disdain this sort of thing — both the vulgar comedy and the focus on ridiculously opulent fashion. But for those of us who like it, it’s a tribute to the continuity of life that it continues on. Indeed. I can see Joan, fierce competitor though she was, giving it her blessing.

I’ll close with a Joan classic: “Does fashion matter? Always — though not quite as much after death.” • 9 February 2015

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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