Joan Rivers’ Curatorial Eye

by Kiko Matsing

The Flamingo Hotel, Las Vegas, circa 1953
(Source: Society for the Preservation of Historic Revelry)

Joan Rivers on the lost mobster glamour of Las Vegas:

Her eye was original. Twenty years ago, when everyone was talking about how wonderful it was that Vegas had been cleaned up and the mob had been thrown out, Joan said no, no, no, they are ruining the mystique. First of all, she said, those mobsters knew how to care for a lady, those guys with bent noses were respectful and gentlemen, except when they were killing you. Second, she said, organized crime is better than disorganized crime, which will replace it. Third, the mobsters had a patina of class, they dressed well and saw that everyone else did, so Vegas wasn’t a slobocracy, which is what it is becoming with men in shorts playing the slots in the lobby of the hotel. The old Vegas had dignity. She hated the bluenoses who’d clean up what wasn’t mean to be clean. No one wanted Sin City cleaned up, she said, they wanted to go there and visit sin and then go home.

(from Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, 5 Sep 2014)

Sin City Glamour. Left: Bugsy Siegel; Right: Warren Beatty in “Bugsy” (1991)

Watching YouTube videos of the late Joan Rivers made me realize how keen an eye she had for great popular culture. Not only did she re-invent herself on the red carpet, she also invented the red carpet as a pop culture moment. But when it became stale–the fiefdom of stylists who carefully choreographed their stars–she left it to hacks like Ryan Seacrest, and moved on to other more interesting things.

At 81, she started an Internet show called “In Bed with Joan” consisting of intimate interviews, literally in her bedroom. (Well, a mock bedroom.) In the one with Bob Saget, they discuss the comics they liked: Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Sam Kinison. Saget suggested George Carlin, and here’s what Rivers had to say:

Saget: I love Carlin a lot. Did you like Carlin?

Rivers: Up to a point. Because he’s so studied. Every word was thought out. And if you tell me one more time how many HBO specials he had, and how smart he was, and how he was a man of the people–with his fifty thousand dollar watch. You know… Don’t give me that bullshit.

Saget: But he was a philosopher, and that’s really what he was. He was a guy standing on his rock and saying what he wanted to say. For that… I mean, it is a practiced stand up, and it’s a rehearsed stand up, and it’s verbatim stand up, but he also… He appreciated the people that were… you know…

Rivers: The little people. And he would wave to them from his Porsche.

I’ve never watched a Carlin stand up, so I found one on YouTube where he jokes about rape and rails against feminists. Rivers was spot on. It was indeed efficient like a train’s time table, and lacked the vitality of the spontaneous. It translates better as a studio recording than a live show. Every word was calibrated to elicit a measured response from the audience. The producers could just as well have added canned laughter and applause in edit. Even Saget realized this and backpedalled, but Rivers saw through the bullshit.

It may seem banal work curating who’s gonna be in the best- and worst-dressed lists on the red carpet. But Rivers real gift is a razor-sharp eye, and the wit to wield it to deflate the self-important.