The word “leader” gets bandied around so much these days it’s been diminished. Like a currency that’s lost a lot of its value, the word “leader” is applied with such abandon it’s become almost meaningless. This makes it the more startling when, every now and then, the word regains its value – as in the case of the late, lamented comic, Joan Rivers.
Rivers the leader was not of recent vintage. Rather Rivers the leader was the Rivers of the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, when she broke every rule in the book, shocking her audiences as they, most of them anyway, convulsed in fits of laughter. Words used to describe her since her death a day ago make the point. Rivers was a “pioneer.” Rivers was a “pathbreaker.” Rivers was a “trailblazer.” Rivers was “the first.” Rivers “paved the way.”
It’s said of Joan Rivers that she broke ground for female comics. That’s true and not true, simultaneously. Sure, her coarse comedy made it possible for someone like Sarah Silverman to be socially acceptable, sort of. But the fact is that the Sarah Silvermans are few and far between – it’s not as if since Rivers we’ve had a raft of women who are famous for being funny.
Rather it is that Rivers the comic caught the culture of the changing times. It’s no accident that her break-through moment was in the 1960s, when the old order was being torn down and when button-down gave way to unzipped. Rivers was a leader all right, but her importance was less in comedy than in America more generally. Today’s outpouring of admiration and affection for Rivers is not so much because she made us laugh, but because she dared us to laugh in public at what previously was kept private. To be sure, she, like a handful of others – Lenny Bruce comes to mind – broke the comic mold. But what’s much more striking is that where she led America followed.