Counterpoint: In Defense of Joan Rivers


People know Joan Rivers didn't actually kidnap anybody, right? If not, here's a helpful explainer.

Things Joan Rivers did do: made a joke by comparing something not actually bad (the size of her daughter's guest bedroom) with a vague reference to one of the most well-known stories of people held captive in horrific living conditions (Ariel Castro's house on Seymour Avenue), with the literal absurdity of the comparison serving an intended comedic effect.

Things Joan Rivers did not do: anything that should cause national outrage.

The 80-year-old legendary comic was on the Today Show on Tuesday, plugging the reality show she's starring in with her daughter, and made a joke about the size of a guest bedroom with a vague reference to Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight: "Those women in the basement in Cleveland had more room," she said.

Then came the good ol' fashioned outrage manufacturing from the news media, reporting Rivers' "statement" as if she were actually serious and treating her refusal to apologize for it as an apparent endorsement for what Ariel Castro did. It's blown up: just do a Google News search for Joan Rivers and Cleveland (or read this Scene post from earlier today, with comments this particular writer disagrees with). Take this Plain Dealer story from Yesterday, for example, which really instigated the national headlines you're probably seeing today. From the start, it's framed as if she's caused actual, tangible harm and is glad about what happened to the women for an audience who mostly did not actually see the supposedly controversial TV segment (how many people reading these stories actually watched the Today Show spot?):

CLEVELAND, Ohio — A defiant Joan Rivers, when reached by The Plain Dealer Wednesday, refused to apologize for statements comparing her reality show with her daughter to the captivity of three women held for a decade in the Seymour Avenue home of Ariel Castro.

Good for the PD to actually talk with Rivers about it, but framing a vague joke about "those women in the basement in Cleveland" as specific "statements comparing her reality show with her daughter to the captivity of three women held for a decade in the Seymour Avenue home of Ariel Castro" vastly takes things out of context. It wasn't a statement, it was a joke by a comic, and should anybody be shocked she won't issue a forced apology?

The reporter reached out to Berry and DeJesus' lawyers for comment:

“Our clients have become aware of Joan Rivers’ unfortunate comparison of living in her daughter’s guest room to their captivity... We understand that Ms. Rivers is a comedienne; however, the idea that a celebrity would say something this hurtful, on national television, no less, is beyond shocking and disappointing... Our clients are strong, private women who have endured unwanted and often painful media attention for quite some time. They now have to endure this, which is a new low, and we believe a sincere apology is warranted.’’

Can't blame the lawyers for the statement. That's their job, and of course it sucks for the women to be constantly reminded of the most horrific decade possible. But with comment about the women enduring "unwanted and often painful media attention for quite some time" and "now they have to to endure this," the blame shouldn't be squarely placed on Rivers. Sharing the blame should be the reporters and news outlets for leeching onto a phony and manufactured controversy and spreading the out-of-context joke to millions upon millions of people who weren't watching the Today Show and otherwise wouldn't have heard about it. The "unwanted and often painful media attention" is not a Joan Rivers joke; it's national media camping out in front of their houses hoping to get a glimpse of them on camera, it's the screaming Nancy Grace, it's the nearly non-stop coverage of their ordeal broadcasted on the news, it's the reporters contacting them to ask how they feel about a joke they probably hadn't known was made.

I'm criticizing the Plain Dealer story, but good for the reporter for including Rivers' defense and her criticism of the Plain Dealer when he could have very well left it out:

“I’m a comedienne,’’ she said. “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. Calm f——— down. I’m a comedienne. They’re free, so let’s move on."

Rivers said she was thrilled that the women are OK and said she hopes they have productive, joyful lives. She also said The Plain Dealer should “stop writing about my stupidity’’ and worry more about government leaders.

That "calm f——— down" in her quote is actually the phrase "calm fucking down," if you couldn't tell.

Good for Joan Rivers.

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Doug Brown

Doug Brown is a staff writer at Scene with a passion for public records laws and investigative reporting. A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., he has an M.A. in journalism from the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a B.A. in political science from Hiram College. Prior to joining Scene,...
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