Death, dysfunction, disease, disfigurement -- are you laughing yet? You were if you caught Joan Rivers dishing on these themes at Overture Hall on Saturday night. Rivers has a genius for delving into subjects that make us uneasy and forcing us to guffaw about them, sometimes with guilty feelings. It's part of why seeing her is an extraordinary experience, a mixture of delightful and disturbing.
But mostly delightful.
Why else is seeing Joan Rivers an extraordinary experience? It's that she is -- and I don't say this lightly -- superhuman. At 77, she roared onto the stage like a hurricane in platinum hair and gold robe, and she didn't stop roaring for well over an hour. Her mind raced at three times the normal speed, with her mouth barely keeping up. Gesticulating, pacing, expertly using her body to put over the material, she spewed jokes at hyperdrive. Sometimes she interrupted a joke to tell a joke-within-a-joke, then circled back to finish the original one. It was exhausting just to watch this virtuoso performance. What must it feel like to do it at her age?
Rivers stayed in character as the profane, angry, money-loving, self-lacerating, celebrity-bashing truth-teller. She said shocking things about Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Mother Teresa, Jesus' mom, Parkinson's disease, Haitian earthquake victims, blind people, eating disorders, breast cancer, defecation, every manner of sex act, and her own vagina. The audience's laughter was often mixed with gasps -- and for Rivers, that must be the sound of success. Her act is not the amiable string of jokes you get from many comedians, including enjoyable opener Brad Stewart. It's Borscht Belt spritzing transformed into a dangerous, complicated work of art.
Okay, so I have to transcribe at least one punchline from the hundreds -- thousands? -- that cascaded off the stage on Saturday night. How about this sick joke for the ages:
"Now they have the morning-after pill. In my day we had the same thing -- we threw ourselves down the stairs!"