Rethinking Joan Rivers

Kevin Scott Hall
5 min readMar 30, 2022


Comedy in a Post-Slap World

Joan Rivers

Back in 2009, I was an entertainment reporter for an online LGBT news magazine. I mainly covered New York nightclubs, which included singers, musicians, producers, and comedians.

That winter, I decided to cover the MAC Awards, an annual lovefest for New York’s cabaret community.

It was a talent-filled night, but what stood out most for me was that a well-known radio personality was given a Board of Directors Award for his support of cabaret artists throughout his career. While accepting the award, he decided it was a good time to try out a new AIDS joke.

This guy used his mouth and ears for a living, but talk about tone-deaf. This was the cabaret community! He was a straight white man, but surely 90% of the males in his audience were gay.

Happily, his joke was met with a few boos and hisses and stony silence. (However, nobody got up and slapped him.) Later, another performer thanked the audience for not laughing at the joke.

I reported on it in my review the next day, saying that, unfortunately, the tasteless joke marred an otherwise celebratory evening.

In that small world, and at a time when “going viral” was in its infancy, the article got a lot of eyeballs. It was probably the most-read thing I’ve ever written. (The bar is low, but nevertheless . . .)

The radio guy issued an apology a few days later. Among his remarks, he said, “I was trying to be like Joan Rivers.”

He failed to realize that she had been cultivating her gay audience for decades and had goodwill on her side in case any bad jokes popped out of her mouth.

But, in light of what happened at this year’s Oscar ceremony, I got to rethinking Joan Rivers and her career. How would she be received now? How should we have received her then?

I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Rivers in the late ’90s. I had gone with a friend to see her act at Fez, a now-defunct downtown club. I had brought her first memoir with me, Enter Talking, a harrowing account of her long and painful struggle to success, up to her first appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, which then launched her career. Her book remains one of my favorite autobiographies of all time and should be read by anyone contemplating a career in showbiz.

During the show, she did, in fact, make jokes about AIDS. She said she annually visited people’s homes on Thanksgiving for God’s Love We Deliver (meals for homebound people with AIDS). But now, she said, due to the life-prolonging meds, it was like visiting the relatives every year because everyone was still alive! It was hilarious.

After the show, I approached a security guard and asked if he could bring the book back for her to sign. To my great surprise, a few minutes later he beckoned me to a door and allowed me in to meet her! She was, far and away, the nicest celebrity I ever met (and I’ve interviewed dozens), asking me about my career and interests, and thanking me endlessly for championing her book.

When she died suddenly in 2014, people recognized her as a pioneer and survivor and she was feted in much the same way Betty White was earlier this year.

Flash forward to early 2020. It was just before the pandemic and I was flying back from L.A. where I had attended a music conference. On the flight, I decided to watch a Joan Rivers comedy show, filmed a few years before her death.

Listen, I have been a fan for years. I know the Joan Rivers drill. She makes fun of herself first, usually about her looks, and then that gives her license to make fun of everyone else. But when she said, “Mexicans are so ugly,” and then the camera panned to what looked like a young woman of Mexican heritage who clearly looked uncomfortable, I thought to myself, “This isn’t funny.” It not only had racial overtones, but there was a power and class difference between a wealthy white Jewish woman and a population that has long been disparaged by many Americans, and that has little power or wealth in the United States. The joke was ugly.

Rivers was launched by Carson when she was in her late thirties, but she became a household name a decade later when she took on Elizabeth Taylor’s weight issues, both in her own shows and on several appearances on Saturday Night Live. Taylor, long regarded for her great beauty and many husbands (her brilliance as an actress was often overlooked, sadly) was an easy target and we often find it funny when the famous and wealthy get taken down a peg. But I don’t know if it’s funny now. Surely, Taylor wasn’t happy about it. (Years later, Rivers went a little too far when she made a joke about Karen Carpenter after her untimely and tragic death and issued a rare apology.)

These days, I am a big fan of Chris Rock. He is at his best when he offers his take on social issues, not attacks on individuals. For that matter, I like a lot of Will Smith’s movies.

Comics occasionally cross the line, and that line, like a goalpost, seems to keep moving back. But Smith’s action sets a bad precedent, that it’s okay to commit physical violence (publicly, on a stage with a billion viewers, no less) in response to harsh words. It’s not.

I think the best thing for people of good conscience to do is to examine what makes us laugh, and ask us why that is. And comics should ask themselves, “If I’m going to joke about a celebrity, can I go after their character or decision-making or something other than their looks or their infirmities?”

When I saw that Joan Rivers routine on that flight, during the ugly Trump years when our leaders said despicable things, I grew up, in a sense. I realized that what I thought was funny many years ago was no longer funny.



Kevin Scott Hall

I am an educator and the author of "A Quarter Inch From My Heart" (memoir) and "Off the Charts" (novel). I'm also a singer/songwriter and public speaker.