If you’re in an airport bookstore and the mood strikes you, flip to a random page in Joan Rivers’ bilious new book Diary of a Mad Diva, and you’ll be offended in a second:
“I love that all the shows in town were performed at 3 p.m., this way a couple can get up in the morning, hose down the doublewide, gun down a couple of defenseless animals, burn an abortion clinic, see a terrific show and still get out in time for lupper.”
“If they’re going to give an Oscar for a great five-minute performance, then they should award it posthumously to Jackie Kennedy. She wowed me in the Zapruder film.”
“I’m catching all kinds of shit because on Fashion Police I made one teensy little joke about Heidi Klum maybe being a Nazi. I don’t know what the problem is; I was complimenting her.”
She insults Tyra Banks, Lena Dunham, “dwarves,” Peter Dinklage, Anne Frank, Jennifer Aniston, Angelina Jolie’s breasts, and many more. She’s like your racist grandma who just “tells it like it is.” Yes, it’s an act, a comedy insult act, one that stretches back its tentacles to the very beginning of all jokes. Rivers is hardest on herself: “Although in fairness, the autocorrect isn’t always wrong. Everytime you type the name ‘Joan Rivers,’ autocorrect changes it to ‘Insufferable Cunt.'” There is something nearly admirable in the Dadaist joke, joke, joke rhythm of the book and its relentless devotion to punchlines. It is literally joke after joke, with nothing book-like in between. It’s mean and it’s boring.
Her observations on celebrity, no matter who the boldface name is, aren’t very interesting, new, novel, or even, worst of all, funny. In an age when everyone is their own worst enemy on Twitter, and stars are mostly Just Like Us!, do we really need Joan Rivers, too? To quote Hannah Horvath from Girls, we’re all filled with self-loathing these days, Joan: “Any mean thing someone’s gonna think of to say about me, I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour.” The pile-on that Rivers’ jokes represents feel like bullying. Combine that with her current work on the terrible E! show Fashion Police, a show whose writers went on strike over unpaid wages, Rivers seems to be a woman adrift in an age when her style of comedy is out of fashion, and for good reason.
It’s sad to see Rivers’ commitment to staying nasty. Her energy is unflagging, as shown in the very good documentary about her life and groundbreaking career: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. She has always been mean, and she has always been desperate for some kind of approval from the outside world. She has the classic comedian’s air of sad-sack desperation underneath the plastic surgery.
But the thing is, when you’re rightfully lauded as a legend, a person who will go down in history and get a pretty good New York Times obituary, isn’t that a decent time to plan retirement? Rivers is 81 years old. She has earned the respect of her fellow comics — her guest spot on Louie was the best thing she’s done in years — and she cracked various glass ceilings for women in comedy. Not only is her nastiness at this stage of her career unnecessary, but I’m really not sure who the audience is, anymore, for the brand of comedy she’s selling. There’s something to be said for going out with dignity; sadly, Diary of a Mad Diva is proof that Rivers would rather keep her name in the headlines than protect her estimable legacy.