Friday, September 5, 2014

What Joan Rivers Means To Me

I am a woman in comedy. It’s a man’s world, and sometimes I feel that more days than others. When I began my journey as a young woman, I was familiar with the gender prejudice that came with comedy. During my time at NYU, I studied feminist playwrights and heard the term glass ceiling. My mother had been a Second Waver in the Women’s Movement. Her generation had it bad, and so far I hadn’t experienced any of the so called sexism. If anything, I enjoyed wearing cute little outfits, flirting with guys, and friendships with dudes in general.

Then it happened. After years of working, things began to go my way in the comedy world. Right away, the green eyed monster came out. There were catty women, but I expected that. The most vicious were not my female comrades but the veteran male comedians. When they heard about a television appearance I was granted, they fired back by explaining this would have never happened if I wasn’t a “cute girl.” After news of me publishing in the Huffington Post hit the news wires in their circle, I was informed it was getting easier and easier to publish there. When I was invited to submit a piece for xoJane, these same dissenters replied, “Oh, that rusty vagina, pissed off woman rag.”

As if that were not bad enough, for years previous I had dealt with the jerkiness of my male counterparts. Yeah, we exchanged sex jokes and I had a lot of dude friends. Hell, my fan base is mostly male. But there were those men who felt women had no place in comedy. For years I had endured headliners demanding sex after the show, and throwing a hissy fit when they were not given the blow job they felt my young lips owed. Add in bookers who felt they could try to grope me, and then the fact there was no HR person I could go to since they were in charge. One booker even told me, “You’re funny….for a woman.”

At the time I wrote it off but wanted to reply, “We go to school, hold public office, you should really see us now, asshole.” Now as I was starting to get to where I wanted to be, the sting of sexism hurt all the more. I began to see the paradigm as a prison rather than what it was, a thing. Not to mention I felt the patriarchy choking me, as Sylvia Plath probably had at the hands of her SOB talentless late husband Ted Hughes. There were dude comedians quick to heckle me, and even quicker to bump me using television credits that hadn’t been relevant in years. To top it off, the male club owners and bookers let them as part of the boys club.

I had no help or light from the women in my life. In the comedy world, many claim to empower women. However, more often than not, I see mean girl tactics on women’s comedy tours and showcases, tearing her down as she is onstage and then telling her how funny she is. Or bitchiness abounds as one comedienne will correct another’s grammar on facebook, negating McKean’s Law that if you make such a suggestion you probably have a grammar error yourself. Then there are those who claim to want to defeat the patriarchal powers in comedy, yet when they get a chance to suck up and sell out to the (male) powers that be they do. Mind you these are the same ones spouting bullshit feminist rhetoric that they don’t live.

Feeling alone, I entered a deep depression where either jumping out a window or putting a bag over my head seemed the workable solution. Gender based bullying with no one to help you is a lonely thing to go through, and low and alone is a sucky place to be. The only thing stopping myself from doing it was my calendar was full. However, I stopped loving the very thing I lived for, making others laugh. I still remember stepping on the sidewalk, hearing the people pass, and crying because I felt like the bell jar was descending on me. I remember thinking Sylvia Plath wasn’t crazy, the oppression of the patriarchy was real. Maybe mental illness helped kill her, but sexism put her head in the oven.

I would try to tell my female friends, but either they lacked my ambition or perception and were no help at all. Most of the time my male friends were useless. After all, when you enjoy and reap the benefits of male privilege what do you understand about sexual oppression? I still remember being interviewed for a podcast, and someone mentioned I had a reputation for being succeed at all costs. When I mentioned this wouldn’t be a question if I were a man, my interviewer didn’t know what to say. He claimed didn’t understand where my Ani DiFranco-esque anger was coming from. Yes, he didn’t. He had been conditioned a certain way, and that way was to be a slave to patriarchal norms.

I still remember speaking to a male comedian I looked up to, a comedy angel if you will. While one of the boys, he was still a decent dude and mentored comedians of all kinds. He probably saved my sanity and life in some ways. Gently, he said he all go through that place no matter who we are, and to tune that negativity out. He said the best way to deal with any bad energy is starve it. In the next breath, he reminded me things were better. Once upon a time, comedy was all men and then Joan Rivers came along. If I thought things were bad now, they were worse then.

I began to read up on Joan Rivers. Sure, she had her microphone and could grate on your nerves. Yes, she probably had less human skin than Michael Jackson. However, she was a legend for a reason. Joan Rivers had been brave enough to take the mic when the idea of a woman standup comedian was nonexistent. Despite the sexism that every woman comedian feels, Joan kept going. She didn’t let the stupidity of sleazy male headliners who lacked her talent or idiot male bookers who wanted blow jobs from female talent stopped her. Rather, Joan let it fuel her fire and kept fighting.

Joan Rivers got on television. This meant paving the way for Phyllis Diller, Roseanne, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler and any and all women I looked up to. Joan Rivers won the respect of Johnny Carson, a time when he commanded late night. Her personal life was a bit of a mess sometimes. Yeah, she was divorced. Yes, she had a husband suffer from depression that ultimately ended in suicide. Sure, she suffered from bulimia to cope. All throughout though, Joan always managed to find the punchline in everything.

Joan Rivers didn’t come into show business at an opportune time. In addition to being a woman, she was Jewish. Yes, there is the joke that Jews rule show business, but anti-Semitism was stronger in this country 40 years ago than it is now. In some ways, Joan had two strikes against her. Still, she didn’t let it weigh her down. As I know that now, looking back at her on the red carpet, I laugh with a tear in my eye. Sure, she had some caustic quips, but they were jokes. Life is too short not to laugh. At the same time, Joan dealt with more than these critics ever would with dignity and grace that they probably could never dream of mustering. Maybe she offended some people more often that not, but when it came down to it, she was still better than them any day of the week.

This past year, I had two Joan Rivers connections. One was the chance to film my DVD and headline at the Metropolitan Room. For those outside the city, Joan used to perform there quite frequently and sometimes stopped in just because she felt like it. While I was never blessed to cross paths with her, each person I talked to spoke about what a sweet woman she was. Either way, it was an honor to even grace my high heels on the same stage the diva performed on in her stilettos.

A few months later, I did my book signing for I Came, I Saw, I Sang at Don’t Tell Mama, another Rivers hot spot. When publicizing the event, I got listed in Stage Time Magazine. A publication for comedians by comedians, Tasha Harris and staff do a great job. When I saw my event listing, and I will never forget this as long as I live, there were two comedians who had the majority of space on the page. Joan Rivers had the nice lay out on the top, and I had the nice lay out on the bottom. Others and their announcements were merely a thought between. The planning of the event nearly killed me. However, this was a nice reminder to keep chugging along, everything would be fine.

And that is what Joan Rivers and her legacy do for women in comedy. It is a nice reminder for us to keep chugging along. It is a reminder that yes, there will always be sexism, idiot headliners, and sleazy male bookers. The answer is not to get angry and let it ruin your love for performing, but to find the punchline in that angst. It is also a reminder that while there will always be struggles, there must always be gratitude for those who came before you that had more to overcome.

As for myself, Joan Rivers has inspired me to be a friend to other women comedians who might feel isolated pushing against the soul crushing patriarchy, the thing that can defeat a promising spirit. Also, in comedy as well as life, we all have a strike or two against us, but we need to work with what we have. As we work with what we have, we shouldn’t let it cripple us but use to our advantage because it might be the piece of the fabric that makes us who we are.

Not too long ago, I spoke to a friend of mine, a Broadway dancer and black man. As a performer of color, he found himself marginalized and frustrated. He explained sometimes doors closed, and sometimes felt as if the odds were against him. I just remember putting my hands on his shoulders and telling him that while I have never been a black man, I get it because I am part of another group that eats shit. I’m a woman. As I spoke to him, telling him about what I had been through, he laughed. He felt better. Then I added the right wing white men would oppress us together, the cops could stop and frisk him and they could spy on my uterus.

As I made that joke, and everytime I make someone laugh, I feel the spirit of Joan Rivers and her contributions behind me. With every advancement that comes with my comedy career, I also know that her tenacity, fiery spirit, and perhaps many nights that she herself wanted to give but didn’t made it possible for me and any other comedienne.

Stay off the facelifts darling. Then again, in the after life, everyone is beautiful. That means no cosmetic surgery and no Fashion Police. Just kidding, I made a bad hacky joke. It's what you would almost want in addition to me making your passing and legacy about myself. 

RIP Joan.

1 comment:

  1. Amen. It never ceases to amaze me - the power shared experiences have to unite individuals in a cause. Sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and other -isms are inherently evil and should be done away with. Especially if you are a member of any oppressed group, there is no excuse to perpetuate any. Bravo April. And that is an amazing ode to Joan. She would be proud. It is appalling how much vitriol people have for her. But despite it I am happy to see a good number of us cN transcend above her flaws and applaud her positive legacy.