It’s been a few weeks but now the fact has time to really settle: Robin Williams is dead. Joan Rivers is dead. These two were icons of comedy and general pop culture for decades. They were the kind of figures that were a part of the pop culture for pretty much every living generation. They were active long before many of us were born and most of us kind of expected they’d be around in some way shape or form for later generations.
What is there really to say about this? Celebrities come and go all the time but there is something a little different when it comes to those of the stature of Williams and Rivers, both of whom were in a league of their own in some way. They both had more than their fair share of mishaps, controversies and flops, but the best of their work was often transcendently funny and endlessly quotable. Both of them came from a background in stand-up comedy and if you were to revisit their acts it’s pretty easy to see that while they certainly had their influences, they brought a unique spin to their respective acts that was totally their own, even inspiring many imitators. From Williams lightning fast wit to Rivers’ unapologetic flippant irreverence: he was the master of spontaneity whilst she was the “queen of mean.” Chances are you’ve experienced their work in some shape or form whether it’s one of William’s many voiceover roles or Rivers’ trademark celebrity insult comedy. The fabric of much of our entertainment lives has been constantly interwoven with the presence of Williams and Rivers for decades now. Seriously, how many comedians were active across our grandparents through the millennial generations? How many were as recognized?
While I would never make the claim to being a real big fan of either, I sort of had an expectation that we’d always somehow get a lot more from them; that they’d always just be around. Their respective schticks were just so ubiquitous with the culture, ones so many have imitated or emulated in some way. It pretty much doesn’t matter if you even hated them or their acts: their influence was there regardless.
For decades even when the culture climate would change, Williams and Rivers remained comic legends who breathe jokes as easily as air and the latter never apologized for anything. Whether you find their jokes funny, there’s something notable about those with the gift of speaking, who can lay down joke on top of joke, never pausing to give themselves or the audience a moment to catch up.
Williams owned spontaneity and improvisation, moving from topic to topic, act to act face to face seamlessly and could carry drama just as well as clownish antics. Williams could be your best friend, father figure, worst enemy, wish-granting genie, outdated stereotype or total buffoon and he wore each role with relish and believability. His entire filmography was as ever changing and all over the map as his stand-up routine. Like his jokes, some of his roles stuck, others didn’t but something that was his own was always brought to the table. Rivers was a brash, born a crotchety old Brooklyn Jewish grandma even before she grew into one: always in hot water and never one for reverence or pussyfooting. While Williams’ death was generally mourned Rivers elicited a more polarizing one and it’s to be expected as no one was safe from her malicious wit, her casual insults and off-color remarks. However what Rivers’ detractors miss out on is for insult comedy to work, one has to be willing to be a target themselves. Rivers’ was often the butt of her own jokes and she really gave herself the brunt of it and had just as many laughing with AND at her just as there were angry at her.
Love them or hate them: Williams and Rivers were “originals” in the truest sense of the world. Their passing is simply a reminder that pop culture is always changing and there are icons or figures that come and go while few ever get the opportunity to really leave a presence or influence behind.