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Joan Rivers jokes about abused women

Mean or mean toward life?
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz

Actress, comedienne and entrepreneur, Joan Rivers shocked many when joking about three women abused and held hostage for a decade in a basement by a sadistic, deeply disturbed man. Many have blasted the witty, acerbic comic for making light of a horrendous situation.

Yet it seems to be her point. Life is mean. It’s brutal, unjust, shocking, and simply beyond comprehension. There are unexplainable things that happen. Her brand of humor, crass and vulgar to many, tells life to “f—-off” with the bravado of any self-respecting New Yorker.

She is a survivor who, in what still remains a male dominated world, doesn’t suffer fools well, though Rivers can be harshly self-deprecating. It’s a dark comedy in a world often not making sense and for which no one, not brilliant theologian or philosopher, can fully explain.

It’s understandable some, who actually get what she’s doing, still find her style distasteful. While others are clueless about the empathy, sensitivity and compassion this philanthropic-minded woman has beneath her hard as nails exterior. The critics will no doubt continue to eviscerate her, as evidenced by many reader comments after the plethora of stories appearing in recent days about her jokes.

Yes, Rivers is generous, compassionate and very sensitive in an unforgiving world. It’s just not something the average person sees. Nor do her detractors understand how she factors these beautiful qualities into a unique brand of humor that isn’t for everyone.

In an appearance on the Today Show, Rivers commented that those “women in the basement in Cleveland had more room” than the bedroom her daughter uses.

Afterwards River commented, “They got to live rent free for more than a decade.” She added, “One of them has a book deal. Neither are in a psych ward. They’re OK. I bet you within three years one of them will be on Dancing with the Stars.”

In short, she’s saying life’s an unexplainable bitch and we’ve got to be strong and carry on. No matter how brutal, we have to get on with it. Her comedy attempts to mock the meanness all too prevalent in life.

The criticism continues with demands for her to apologize. Ironically, some of the calls have been personal attacks suggesting insensitivity comparable to what Rivers is being accused. Her response, “I’m a comedienne. I know what those girls went through. It was a little, stupid joke. There is nothing to apologize for. I made a joke. That’s what I do. Calm down. Clam f--- down.”

This opinion piece isn’t about defending Joan Rivers or her unique brand of humor. The well-read, no-nonsense actress, comedienne and entrepreneur has the intellectual gravitas to do that on her own. There is a much larger issue here that offers perspective, if we’re willing to separate emotion from reason and look at her humor in a larger context.

In a way, Rivers is reminding us bad things happen to good people and life is filled with horrible events. She also seems to be assuring us that the human spirit is bigger and better than anything that life can throw at us. Individually we each possess an inner strength to look life in the face and say, “I’m a survivor and I won.” Or to put it in her words, “f—-off life!”

Rather than react and judge Rivers, it might be better to go a bit deeper within and ask whether she’s challenging us to leave comfort zones to empower ourselves as we hear and read about the millions of injustices, great and small, found every day throughout the world. This isn’t to suggest her approach is right for everyone, but she is urging us to think and be strong.

Paul Jesep is an ethicist, attorney, corporate chaplain, and founder of, a firm committed to the spiritual wellness of professionals. He also is author ofLost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically”.

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