Joan Rivers channels personal tragedy on ‘The Simpsons’

Comedian and soi-disant style icon Joan Rivers recently guest starred on a new episode of “The Simpsons” in all her tragicomic glory.

The blogosphere was quick to note the parallels between the show’s plot and Rivers’ life.

Adam Buckman summated on

It was a story about a top comedy talent headlining a network TV show and the show’s headstrong producer, with whom the comedian has a close personal relationship.  In the episode, the producer — played by Rivers — threw her weight around so much on the set that network execs ordered the comedian, Krusty the Clown, to fire her, or else they would.

The story, no doubt devised with Rivers’ approval and possibly with her input, mirrored her own personal history — with Fox, no less — back in 1987.  That’s when she starred in a late-night show on the then-fledgling network — “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” — while her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, acted as executive producer.  When Fox execs ordered her to fire Edgar, she refused and they were both canned.  Three months later, he committed suicide — the worst tragedy of Rivers’ life.

And yet, there she was on “The Simpsons” spoofing her own tragic history — something only a comedian of her stature and experience would attempt.

Anyone who caught Rivers’ excellent biographical documentary “A Piece of Work” gained insight into the tragedy and trauma that informs her comedy. Not only has she suffered unthinkable loss, she has been riddled with insecurity about her appearance since childhood. Her candid recollections of being told by family, friends and boyfriends that she was ugly, ordinary and sexually unappealing was heart wrenching to hear, though it explains the deep psychic motives she had for all that deforming surgery. As I watched I realized Rivers wasn’t having all that work done just to look younger, she was literally trying to erase her face, the scourge of shame and self-doubt.

Buckman seems somewhat amazed by Rivers’ ability to lay bare her painful past, setting aside her ego for the sake of her art. But that is often the creative salve of great comics who use their vulnerable status to poke fun at everything else.

Producer Bernie Brillstein once observed of Jewish humor, “If you talk about it out loud, it can take away the curse of it all.” That ethos encapsulates the sensibility of Jewish humorists, who have historically responded to the absurdities and tyrannies of the larger culture by self-deprecating. As Roseanne Barr once said, “If you make fun of your own in front of the dominant culture here, you can live next door to them.”

The impulse to mock the very things about yourself that others might fault you for is essentially an attempt at belonging.