Joan Rivers and Me

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‘Joan Rivers / Jewish Mum of The Year??? Ohhhh no, too offensive’
‘Joan Rivers/Jewish Mum of the Year??? Hilarious’

I know where I stand on ‘Jewish Mum of the Year’ . But I’ve always been divided when it comes to Ms Rivers, so last month I got myself on a train to Brighton to join a three thousand strong crowd to see this 79 year old powerhouse. Dissenters would not have been disappointed, from the very outset Rivers let rip:  ‘Oh My God, Mexicans are so ugly!  Why did nobody tell me they were so ugly? And Haitians, urgh’. Disabled people, Gay people, Lesbians, Chinese Women, the elderly, Korean ‘dog eaters’ and yes, Mexicans, caught the end of a tongue lashing, so too celebrity adoptions and couples who don’t sign pre-nups.

Comedy has been in the dock recently. Whilst I think the Daily Mail was wrong to brand stand-up Frankie Boyle a racist, I feel as uneasy about his glib comedy style (and that of countless similar comedians like Ricky Gervais) as the next  Guardian-reading liberal. So why did Rivers’ material leave me shocked but guffawing, rather than outside raging against the English Channel?

The question is always – what is the comedian’s project? Who are they bashing, why, and how do we feel about it? Somehow I never felt worried about the people on the end of jokes in this gig. She won’t ‘perform for cripples’ she says, because she looked after her one-legged husband for years and she’s had enough. Her disparaging comments about Chinese women initially appall, but ultimately reveal her fears these women will steal husbands because they are so good at sex.  And cultural observations closer the home? You wouldn’t catch old Jews bashing a piñata at a birthday party hoping for a Tootsie Roll, she comments, ‘not unless that thing was stuffed with diamonds.’

The joke was ultimately and always on the character of Rivers herself, and on greed, celebrity and the quest for beauty – all the things Rivers seems to stand for. ‘I’m an actress, playing a comedian’ she says in the brilliant documentary about her ‘A Piece of Work’.  Somehow – perhaps through her intricate self -awareness, and a vulnerability that she sneaks through her bolshy, unapologetic presentation- we can trust that Rivers is not homophobic, racist or plain vicious. In a way that we seem less able to trust in Ricky Gervais or Frankie Boyle. So yes, she walks a very thin line between outrageously funny and outrageously offensive.  However, more than many comedians, it feels that she is in masterful control of where she is walking. Emerging into the Brighton rain, I felt that I had been challenged both personally and in my role as a member of a society so obsessed with money, image and material success.

Which brings me to ‘Jewish Mum of the Year’ (and I promise I will not bang on too much here, others have said it better). The community’s various reactions to the show seemed to be tied up in fear of the programmer’s intent.  As David Baddiel explained so well at the JCC for London/UKJF debate last week, TV gets made to make money. No production company is worrying too hard about rounded representations, just rounded bank balances and further commissions. Their job in this instance was not to educate or provide a complexity of representation because mostly, viewers like simple. Joan Rivers’ material  – live, unfiltered by committee and intellectually complex– is a brilliant counterpoint to the programme. An ambitious, hard working, self-confessedly flawed Jewish woman who has cast herself as provocateur, who has fought for success in a predominantly sexist industry, whose observations are piercing and astute, and who doesn’t care who she offends in the process. She would be my Jewish Mum of the Year, no question.

Rachel Mars is a performer, writer and producer. Her new show ‘The Way You Tell Them’ about the uses and abuses of comedy opens in London in the new year. For more information see rachelmars.org . She tweets @rachelofmars

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