I can’t even remember the first time I was teased at school or for what. There were so many things to be made fun of, the pale skin, the frizzy hair, the learning disability. When I look back on it I get lost in a daze of blackouts and denial. What I do remember was a television movie called The Girl Most Likely to …… starring Stockard Channing which was about an ugly, picked on girl who gets, plastic surgery, becomes beautiful and then gets murderous revenge on everyone. Although it wasn’t critically acclaimed, the film offered me the comfort that no school counselor, religion or friend ever could.
The film begins with heroine Miriam arriving for registration day at the fifth college she has attended in her search for a husband. In spite of her being smart, helpful and amusing she is repeatedly rejected by her classmates and is the victim of many a practical joke. One night, when she is furious after a prank she gets into a car accident and when they take her body cast off she had been transformed into a beautiful swan.
Now, there are many ugly duckling stories out there. The fat pimply girl grows tall and thin with perfect skin and takes off with the one man who was always kind to her, or the one who never noticed her. Or, the fat girl who is taunted by the crowd, but loved by the cutest boy in school. There is the Cyrano story, where the ugly person loves the beautiful person entirety for their looks and impresses said beautiful person with their words. None of these fables resonated with me in the way that I wanted. As much as I wished I could grow up to be tall and thin and gorgeous, I suspected it wouldn’t happen. I was to learn that most men are far too shallow to love anyone for their personality. I found the Cyrano story to be too hypocritical to be enjoyed.
The Girl Most Likely To …was different. Although Miriam certainly transforms, it is revenge and not romance that is on her mind. She doesn’t want the love and admiration of those who wronged her, she wants their blood. She knows that men are stupid and they like big breast, so she points her newly enhanced boob at her victims and points them right in the direction of their demise, She gets a plumber to drown himself, a quarterback to sky dive to his death, arranges for surgical accident for a doctor (Gopher, from love boat) and has a cheerleader backflip right out the window. I loved it!
I had come home from a hard day of being teased to find I had a new friend – or a friend. Miriam was smart, sharp witted and self-deprecating. Her suffering had built her character and her power of observation. “
I wished that Miriam was real and I fantasied that we’d go on missions together. Whenever I was laughed at, I would think of what she would say. I fantasied that we got a particularly mean classmate of mine to do a handstand on the el tracks.
In a few years I would learn that she was, indeed real and her name was Joan River’s. Ya see, Joan co-wrote the script for the movie. The film is laced with running themes from Joan’s stand up routine. She has a slutty roommate named Heidi (Abramowitz?) She realizes all men care about are looks, “The only one to ever ask me to go to bed was my mother,” and of course she ends up getting life changing plastic surgery.
When you are homely and picked on adults are quick to tell you that you are not homely and the other kids are just jealous of you. After they finish lying to you about how pretty you are they will then proceed to tell you that looks don’t matter and its inside that counts, which is bullshit. Oh don’t get me wrong its inside that SHOULD count, but it doesn’t, just turn on the TV and tell me I’m wrong.
I would watch TV at night and I was always thrilled when Joan was on The Tonight Show. She was like the adult role model I’d never had. She told the truth about the way things were when everyone else tried to make me think it was all in my head. It made me feel strong, smart and observant- like her.
“No man ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card,” she once told Johnny Carson.
When Joan died last week I felt like I’d lost a friend. Although I didn’t like it much that who she was wearing had a face, parents and a central nervous system, I still admired what she had done. It wasn’t just that she was a woman who was salty, it was that she was a person who was honest and showed us that truth was painful and the only way to deal with that pain was to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Her strength in the face of her critics was amazing. Most people would have backed down and said they were sorry for offending people, but not her. This is remarkable, because, given the amount of plastic surgery she had, her attention to fashion and her need for fame she clearly cared what other people thought. She was willing to stand up for her right to say anything she wanted even though it must have terrified her to do so and that is the definition of courage.
Much has been said this week about how she paved the way for a lot of female comedians, but none of them were really in the same class as she was. Kathy Griffin makes fun of celebrities, but she often predicates her insults, by saying that she love or admires the person. Sarah Silverman is really risqué, but she is definitely playing a character on stage. Chelsea Handler merely takes cheap, unfunny shots at the physicality of a little person and expects us to be shocked at the fact that she drinks, sleeps around and admits it. But, Joan took no prisoners, she meant everything she said, she wasn’t playing a character her humor came straight from her own pain and rage. She might have been crude, but she was also quick witted and observant in a way that is very rare.
No one will ever be able to break ground the way Joan did again. Female comics have become bawdy to the point of being tiresome. She once told a reporter she believes in reincarnation and she wanted to come back as her dog. So if you see a poodle puppy walking down fifth avenue in high heels barking at everyone, don’t be afraid to laugh – that’s the way she would have wanted it.