Trailblazer Joan Rivers is dead, and over the next few days, you should expect to see various takes on what her life and career meant. These takes will probably fall on one of two sides: "Joan Rivers was fearless!" vs. "Joan Rivers was bigoted!" Supporting evidence abounds for both, which is to say that the truth is more complicated than what an outsider's summation of a person's life work can provide.
I think, though, that this scene from Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (really, its centerpiece), does a good job of explaining Rivers' ethos and why she continued her abrasive brand of comedy unapologetically even after tastes had evidently shifted toward something less hostile, more politically correct.
To a heckler who took issue with Rivers' Helen Keller joke on account of his having a deaf son, Rivers retorted:
Oh you stupid ass. Let me tell you what comedy is about. Oh please, you are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot. My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a bitch. Don't tell me. And just in case you can hear me in the hallway, I lived for nine years with a man with one leg, OK you asshole? And we're gonna talk about what it's like to have a man with one leg who lost it in World War II and then went back to get it, 'cause that's fuckin' littering.
But then, when a woman backstage expressed solidarity with Rivers, the comedian, who had by then cooled down, replied, "I'm sorry for him. He has a deaf son. Tough." On her way out of the venue, Rivers said she hoped the guy who gave her a hard time achieved catharsis.
Rivers was edgy. She knew it, and she knew what it meant—that she could offend people, that doing so might make her feel bad, that it still could be worth it. She said nasty things that sometimes hit with a thud, but sometimes were sublime in their pithiness. She was a spectacle until the very end, an everlasting provocateur whose approach to mainstream comedy and commentary was endangered, and now is even more so.