Joan Rivers—Not Me”

(to be sung to the tune of “Moon River”)


I watch the Oscars every year
And sometimes I get tempted
To fix a flaw, augment my rear,
An urge that’s soon pre-empted—

I see some star with perfect bod
Upon the carpet red.
She’s talking to this creature odd
Who fills my soul with dread.


Joan Rivers,
Arbiter of style,
What’s happened to your smile

Ol’ wiseacre,
You ball breaker,
Your face is so lifted,
It’s drifted away . . .

                (From CUTS: An Uplifting Musical, by Caryl Avery, © 2011 Caryl Avery.  All rights reserved.  Printed with the author’s permission.)


Before you go looking for an explanation or clicking off in outrage, listen for a minute—listen closely. Just maybe you can hear the sound of Joan Rivers laughing.

Joan Rivers, who passed away on Thursday, September 4, was a target comedian. Ready the audience. Aim the punch line. Fire! As often as not the target was herself (“When I was born I was so ugly, the doctor slapped my mother!”). She would have loved that spoof. She could have written it.

Sighted in person in 2001, she was frightening—frozen, a waxen figure from The Twilight Zone. Two weeks later, on TV, she looked better. In the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, she looked even better—never particularly real nor her age, but more animated and more, well, human.

Why was that?

Joan Rivers didn’t live for how she was perceived in private or even in almost public (meaning offstage). She lived for how she looked in the lights or in front of the camera, and if that meant looking like the woman who said, “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware,” so be it.

Her world was the one where she broke through the Males Only barricade, not as one of the boys, but as a marionette of a woman who pulled her own strings. As we said when we wrote about Elaine Stritch not long ago, the biography of this icon is readily available and mostly known (though the Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard may come as a surprise). Joan Rivers didn’t promote mysteries to create allure. She propagated exaggeration as a way of coping with truth.

We mentioned Audrey Hepburn in the title of this Poetry Sunday because the song “Moon River” will forever be associated with her and because, after being pronounced dead in show business, Joan Rivers came back to life interviewing and skewering Hepburn wannabes on the red carpets of Hollywood and other Hollyworlds. She never was the princess, but she could engage them face-to-face and enrage them behind their backs.

As for us, we think the best tribute we can give to a woman whose memorial ceremony will happen in Manhattan today is to construct a found poem of four Joan Rivers jokes and one quotation. The jokes are hilarious, poignant, pugnacious. They’re not meant to be believed, but still they remind us of the twinship of humor and honesty. The quote that makes up the last stanza is an atypical Rivers-ism. These are lines without a punchline—a rare chance to see the woman behind the mask.

Mask or no, joking or not, she was a rare woman indeed.


Can We Talk?

When I was born,
my mother asked
the doctor if I would
live. He said, Only
if you take your foot
off of her throat.

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.

I said to my husband,
My boobs have gone.
My stomach’s gone.
Say something nice
about my legs.
He said, Blue
goes with everything.

My husband killed himself
and it was my fault.
We were making love
and I took the bag off
of my head.

I have become my own
version of an optimist. If
I can’t make it through
one door, I’ll go through
another door or I’ll make
a door. Something terrific
will come no matter
how dark the present.




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  • Bob September 9, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Love the article!! So miss Joan. She had herself in so many places there are voids practically everywhere. I just hope that Meryl Streep was at her funeral and cried in 5 languages!!!

  • Elizabeth Marcus September 8, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    I think you are so right that the immensely clever, snarky humor of the song would have appealed to Joan. Well said.

  • Camille Block September 8, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Caryl, thank you for your piece on Joan!
    I also love that she said,”I wish I had a twin, so I
    could know what I’d look like w/o plastic surgery.”

  • Miriam Murphy September 8, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    I saw “Cuts: An Uplifting Musical” and it was fantastic! It’s a funny and thought-provoking look at plastic surgery, and our obsession with youth and beauty… You can see a video of the performance of “Joan Rivers — Not Me” (and other songs from the show)at http://carylavery.com/cuts-preview/

  • ellensue spicer-jacobson September 7, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    I loved her irreverence, her humor and her personna. She was bigger than life, even in death.