Why is Betty White Hot and Joan Rivers Not?

Why twentysomethings adore one older lady but not the other

By Susan Toepfer
From the new documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"
Photograph: Photo by Charles Miller

Can we talk? I’ve just come back from seeing the funny but somewhat brutal documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which follows a year in the life of the raspy-voiced, insult-spewing comedienne, now 77. “Age is one thing you can’t overcome,” the on-screen Rivers says matter of factly, fully aware that, in some circles, she is considered a has-been. Invited to be the focus of a Comedy Central roast, she tells her friend and fellow funnywoman, Kathy Griffin, 49, that she doesn’t even want to show up because it will be all plastic surgery jokes. Cut to: the Comedy Central roast, with all plastic surgery jokes.

You can argue that she brought that on herself—and she wouldn’t fully disagree. Disgusted by Hollywood hypocrisy about going under the knife, Rivers years ago decided to fess up about the work she’d done, becoming first the poster girl for plastic surgery, then the extreme target for facelift farce. It is a testament to her continued integrity, though, that the documentary opens with a close-up of her bare, cosmetics-free face. And now that the movie is getting rave reviews, now that she has triumphed as the last Apprentice left standing, now that she’s set for her own reality show, Mother Knows Best, maybe Rivers is finally poised for her Betty White moment, her turn to garner the mass respect and admiration that is her comedic due.

We’ll see. Reason to be dubious: It’s so much easier to bow to White, everyone’s favorite grandma, whose sexual humor is sweetly coy and whose sly appraisals of her fellow performers are sharp but not painful. Rivers, stepping into terrain long trod by male comics, goes into graphic sexual detail in her standup jabs, never veering from the vulgar, while making enemies with every red-carpet fashion critique. To some degree, Betty is a benign blank canvas—we can paint on the personality we prefer. Not so Joan, who comes fully formed, sharp-elbowed and armed with four-letter put-downs. As far back as her 20s, her manager warned, “A woman shouldn’t talk like that.” She’s still giving him the finger.

White’s most recent popularity wave has been among the twentysomethings, who you’d think might appreciate Rivers’ take-no-prisoners style. But so far no Saturday Night Live offer for Joan. My guess: Her edginess, coming from an old woman—and an angry one, at that—scares them off. They don’t know what to make of her, whereas Betty’s persona allows the cool and hip to condescend to her. They can patronize Betty even as they take her up; Joan doesn’t lend herself to that sort of thing.

Ironically, Rivers considers herself an actress first, someone who plays the part of a comedienne. But the film roles, sit-coms and commercials laid at Betty’s feet have never been offered to Joan. So while White stars in still another series, Hot in Cleveland, Rivers finds herself braving the bitter cold of Minnesota or the ratty recesses of Queens to pay her ever-mounting bills. (“Forty years in the f—-ing business and this is where you end up,” she says onscreen, surveying a dingy comedy club. “This is my career—how depressing.”)

Could she downsize? For sure—“This is the way Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money,” Rivers says in the film, surveying her Versailles-like Manhattan digs.  “But I don’t want to live carefully,” she protests. Nor does she want to garden. She wants to entertain.

Phyllis Diller, another groundbreaking female comic, played Vegas until she was 84. Joan will not. Once the Queen of Vegas, she got blackballed after she pissed off her mentor, Johnny Carson, by signing on for her own late-night show. It bombed, and Joan began a long, slow spiral down, professionally and personally. Her husband, Edgar, committed suicide and afterward Joan had to work to reconstitute her relationship with their daughter, Melissa. Professionally, Rivers remains persona non grata on late-night TV.

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