If Joan Rivers was Frankie Boyle, she’d never be out of the papers for scandal. If she was Jimmy Carr, she’d have the professionally outraged demanding her head on a spike every other week. Rivers in full flow on stage could actually be the most outrageous and offensive comic going, yet somehow she evades the wrath of the non-comedy press — and there’s something quite exhilarating about her thoroughly unapologetic act.
There’s no acting coy, no bashful acknowledgement she’s about to say something controversial before she lets rip, and most impressively, no faux-apology for the relentless barrage of filth she’ll assault an audience with. Perhaps it’s a necessary catharsis for all concerned, as it’s impossible not to admire such directness.
The first words we hear from Rivers are from the wings. A male voice reads a message from the comic, lest she offend any of a number of listed minority groups — before a pause, and that familiar, brassy screech: “GO F*CK YA’SELVES!”
And the scene is set. Kit and McConnel (who, back in the days of Kit and the Widow opened for Rivers’s last Liverpool show, at the Royal Court in 2006) performed a number of comic parodies and made a slew of jokes at the headliner’s expense to good effect. Their act was a necessary distraction, they claimed, as Rivers had yet to thaw out from her cryogenic suspension.
She’s 79, is our Joanie, and it suits her. She is the ultimate combination of old-school American cabaret glamour (her enormous coat of hot pink sequins was testament to that) and razor sharp Jewish comedy that paved the way for today’s alternative comedy scene, at once classic and modern. Her only possible defence, South Park style, is that she is an equal opportunities offender, with everyone – young and old, gay and straight, and of all nationalities and level of celebrity, including Rosie O’Donnell, Suri Cruise, Cher and her own family in the firing line (she pretends to be so pre-occupied she can’t remember her grandson’s name).
A lot of her gags on stage at the Phil were riffs on older material, but that wasn’t really the point. With decades of jokes to draw from, the joy of watching Rivers perform is as much down to keeping up with the pace of not only her punchlines, but how she pieces all her stories together.
Not everything’s easy to listen to, and Rivers still has great power to shock. Unlike the Doug Stanhopes or Tim Minchins of the world, there’s not even any deeper point to it either, other than playing with a crowd and getting a reaction. She is simply relentless — as a comic; with her uncompromising, unprintable material; and with the sheer amount of belly laughs she can squeeze from an audience.