I was twenty-five years old and navigating my first year out of drama school convinced that a passion for bad boy actors, espresso coffee and Stephen Sondheim augured well for a successful career in showbiz. I would be seriously famous by the time I was thirty, and if I wasn’t I’d pack it in. I wasn’t and I didn’t.
During my three years at drama school I joined a four-hander all-girl cabaret act called June Fowler & the Fowlettes. Our show was a chaotic mix of slapstick, free-range monologues and Dadaist dialogue.
I played a busty refugee from Cold War Russia named Rosa. Heavily armed with serious delusions of talent – ‘You know, I was very skilled and very beautiful gymnast in Leningrad?’ – Rosa was keen to pursue a showbiz career in her new country no matter who she had to bribe in order to do it. ‘Is all okay, you know. In my country is called bla’t. Bla’t is – how you say? – is, like, I give you this and then you give me that. Okay?’ She wore an open fur coat exposing skin-tight workout gear while a Communist military cap sat precariously atop her massive beehive hairdo. Rosa delivered lines in thickly accented Russian-American English full of double entendres and malapropisms. It was all pretty stereotypical stuff. But then The Fowlettes were always more hit-and-miss comic anarchy, than cutting-edge political satire.
One day at a rehearsal someone brought along a Joan Rivers album; it was the first time I had ever heard of her. We were running through lines at the kitchen table in my small deco flat in St KiIda. It was her caustic wit, the stabbing delivery, her breathless candour and the diva-bravura that got me hooked. I loved right off her dirty-funny, sharp-tongued jokes that just kept on coming and had me gasping for air from laughing so hard.
Later, as we’d painted my flat’s walls white and the skirting boards black, we’d listened to Rivers and drank cask Riesling. The Riesling was awful, but Rivers was a revelation. I was tipsy from the plonk and faint from the paint, but I could tell that the way Rivers brandished words like scalpels was sheer brilliance.
It was 1985. Mental As Anything was top of the charts, Hawkey was PM, Maria Callas had made the cover of Time magazine, and I wore black leggings under floral op-shop cotton dresses and lipstick so red my mouth could stop traffic.
That first time I heard the diminutive revolutionary’s comic schtick I’d laughed my arse off. We all had. She might have been a republican but Joan Rivers was a total radical when it came to carving out a place for funny females in mainstream America. Until Rivers hit her straps in New York in the mid-1960s, high-profile female comic writer–performers who were not just funny but could also lampoon without fear or favour were a rare breed. That day when The Fowlettes were meant to be rehearsing in my flat in St Kilda we’d all revelled in Rivers murdering sacred cows instead.
Actually rehearsal is far too grand a description for what we did back then. What we did was more like anti-rehearsal, more like lots of laughing interrupted by cappuccinos and cakes from the Russian Jewish pastry shops in nearby Acland Street. Those creamy continental vanilla slices the size of house bricks still inhabit my dreams.
Joan Rivers’ parents were Russian–Jewish immigrants and she possessed that particular mix of resilience, black humour and work ethic so often evident in second-generation Holocaust survivors – particularly those who end up working in the arts.
But whereas Rivers was a disciplined and dedicated workaholic – her daughter said that her mother’s career was like having a sibling you had to compete with for attention – our approach to comedy work in those days was mostly lazy fun conducted in lounge rooms or church halls.
In 1985 The Last Laugh, a well-known comedy venue in inner-city Melbourne, had a try-out room upstairs called Le Joke and it’s where The Fowlettes performed for the first time outside the playpen-safety of drama school. As in so many anecdotes about fledgling careers, The Fowlettes’ showbiz launch was the classic baptism by fire.
Le Joke was dark, cramped, smoky and pulsing with energy. It also stank of wine-soaked carpet, and the stage was so small it was like performing on a beer crate.
Some nights we died. Once some drunken bloke heckled: ‘Get off the stage you fat bitches!’ We did. Another night we were so lost, our pianist decided to play a few of his own compositions – all four of them – until we finally managed to figure out what came next. Or perhaps one of us just made something up. I think I did. I think I started treating the stand-up mic like a penis and doing jokes about migrant girl head jobs.
Other nights, theatre’s alchemy of cunning and craft had the show work a treat. We even pleasantly surprised ourselves. What we lacked in preparation, we made up for with strong improvisation skills and the chutzpah of youth.
‘Comedy is such power,’ said Joan Rivers. There were shows when we too felt powerful. Like what we were doing mattered. That making people laugh was important. When there was a crisis in my personal life – and there usually was – The Fowlettes was an opportunity to turn personal drama into public entertainment.
When I broke up with my then-boyfriend on St Kilda beach one stinking hot day in the middle of a hailstorm, such ignominy eventually morphed into Rosa screeching obscenities at her boyfriend in Russian while her stilettos sank further into the sand and her hairdo became a droopy mess of bobby pins and soggy hairspray.
Joan Rivers’ recent death at eighty-one years of age got me watching hours of classic Rivers from her big break in the mid-1960s on the Johnny Carson show to her more recent self-invented fashionista persona on the achingly cruel-but-funny TV show Fashion Police. ‘I have not seen lips this green since Miss Piggy got out of the back seat of Kermit’s car.’
She was the first woman to host a late-night chat show on American television and one of the highest-earning comics of her generation.
Joan Rivers was as wicked as the Ab Fabbers and as no-holds-barred as Lenny Bruce – to whom she attributed the revelation that ‘personal truth can be the foundation of comedy, that outrageousness can be cleansing and healthy’.
Joan Rivers was as resilient as Tupperware.
Like so many performers, Rivers struggled with body hatred all of her life and continued to alter herself by way of surgical intervention up until her death. As a child she’d cottoned on pretty quick that she was witty and could make people laugh. She thought herself too ugly to attract notice any other way: ‘I was so ugly that they sent my picture to Ripley’s Believe It or Not and he sent it back and said, “I don’t believe it.”’
But it was all material for Rivers; nothing was untouchable. Not her body: ‘I wish I had a twin, so I could know what I’d look like without plastic surgery.’ Not the holocaust: ‘The last time a German looked [that] hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens,’ a gag for which she was later pilloried and responded to with by saying, ‘This is the way I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humor … my husband lost his entire family in the Holocaust.’
Not her daughter: ‘Don’t tell your kids you had an easy birth or they won’t respect you. For years I used to wake up my daughter and say, “Melissa, you ripped me to shreds. Now go back to sleep.”’ Not 9/11: ‘You laugh to get through it. I started thinking about jokes while I was walking uptown on 9/11.’
Not even her second husband’s suicide in the late 1980s was off limits: ‘My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head.’
I’d heard about Rivers’ husband’s suicide and, although I remember thinking how awful it was, I’d also thought it amazing she’d converted personal tragedy to public schtick.
It wasn’t until after my sister took her own life over twenty years later that I finally got where Rivers was coming from back then; the way she had dealt with her grief through her work.
I started writing about my sister four months after her suicide. It was painful. Strange. Wrong. Treacherous. I had been writing confessional-style memoir for years, but nothing, nothing, was like writing about my dead sister and trying to turn it into a coherent narrative. Writing may be good therapy but it does not always make good art.
But I couldn’t write funny anymore. I couldn’t do jokes. So many subjects that had once been interesting to me became shallow and irrelevant. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t like I thought now my sister’s dead there can be no more jokes. It wasn’t as if I decided that I now had to write only serious stuff.
For a long time after she died the closest I got to a laugh was watching her favourite comics – Sasha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais and Joanna Lumley – on DVDs she’d left behind. When I used to watch those DVDs, I felt close to her. But to write funny stuff about anything, let alone about her was impossible. Unthinkable.
Now, five years after my sister’s death, it’s just starting to feel possible to write light again. Finally, I can laugh without the guilt. Now I can write jokes without feeling unfaithful. At last there can be joy in places where before there was only the aching grotesque hollowness of grief.
My sister was funny. She was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. Her personal boundaries might have been all over the shop, but her impressions of members of our family and my ex-boyfriends were comedy gold. But a great sense of humour and an acute eye for life’s absurdities are not always protection against depression or unrelenting disappointment.
When my sister died I was contributing regular monologues on ABC Radio National – I’d been doing them for six years. They were not always funny but they were irreverent and self-deprecating personal essays about everything from sex to parenting, romance to gardening. There were plenty of jokes, narrative-based gags, but jokes nonetheless.
After my sister took her own life I could no longer take the piss out of mine.
When Rivers’ husband, her daughter’s father, killed himself, Rivers said she’d been contemplating suicide herself until one of her dogs reminded her that ending it all was not an option. ‘I was all alone, my daughter wasn’t talking to me, my career was over … my dog came in and sat in my lap and that was the turning point in my life.’
Rivers was an actress playing the role of a comic. Like all writers who unashamedly mine our own lives and those of others for material, the end product – the stand-up routine, the book, the album or the radio essay – are all artifacts, versions of who we are. They are some of the truth of who we are, not the whole truth.
‘Part of my act is meant to shake you up. It looks like I’m being funny, but I’m reminding you of other things. Life is tough, darling. Life is hard. And we better laugh at everything; otherwise, we’re going down the tube.’
She’s right of course. The late great Joan Rivers was right.