Josh Thomas discusses why Joan Rivers gets away with offending everyone

Josh Thomas discusses why Joan Rivers gets away with offending everyone

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: Australian comedian Josh Thomas broke through in his native land at 17 and went on to become one of the top young comics in his country, with numerous stand-up shows and television appearances, as well as the podcast Josh Thomas And Friend. His crossover into the United States has gone a bit more slowly. But his comedy has picked up a cult following here, and is building up steam now that his TV series, Please Like Me, has been imported. Please Like Me’s inciting incident involves Thomas’ character (also named Josh and based heavily on Thomas) realizing that he is gay, only for his mother to attempt to kill herself, so the series is just as likely to push for pathos as laughs. (The series is available to stream on Pivot’s website for cable or satellite TV subscribers.)

The fanned: Legendary stand-up comedian Joan Rivers.

The A.V. Club: When was the first time you were cognizant of Joan Rivers?

Josh Thomas: I usually live in my own ignorant, pop-culture bubble, so I don’t really know what people are doing. But I had heard of Joan Rivers, obviously, because I’m a comedian and she’s a legend. Then somebody gave me tickets to go see her in Melbourne at the casino—in this perfectly kind of Joan Rivers-esque room, just because it had the palm trees and was really Vegas-like, but for some reason we have that in Melbourne—and it was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. 

She kept making fun of the Chinese. In my stand-up, I’m so obsessed with being quite nice and I don’t want to offend people. You know what I mean? So I just love it when I see a comedian come out and be a real dick and not care about hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s so refreshing to me, and she just kept carrying on and yelling, “The Chinese, the Chinese!” and doing this old-school impression of the Chinese where she pulls her face back to make her eyes slanted, and her face doesn’t move. [Laughs.] 

AVC: Do you live vicariously through other comedians when they’re harsh or do offensive humor?

JT: I like seeing comedians do stuff that I could never do. She’s so big, and I saw her on the weekend and she’s saying the meanest things. I just filled up with glee.

AVC: Where would you recommend someone start getting into Joan Rivers?

JT: I don’t know, when did she start? When did Joan Rivers start? You’ve got to see her live, right? You actually have to go and watch her. You don’t want to watch a YouTube clip of her or whatever. You want to see her screaming in your face, “What? Am I wrong? Am I wrong?” When she was starting out, it was actually so edgy and so incredible to have this girl saying these things—completely groundbreaking. And now it’s a bit retro, but I think that’s more fun. For me, it’s more fun to see her now, doing this comedy that’s still topical and that was so different then. 

AVC: So you recently went to Montreal and saw her.

JT: I did this Joan Rivers-hosted gala on the weekend, so that’s why she was on my mind, because of how camp she is. She opened up in this big feather gown facing the back [of the stage], and then the wall lifted up and [her dress] was backless, like in a Mariah Carey entrance. [Laughs.] Then she bounded around and everyone was on their feet because they love Joan Rivers, and then she did three minutes on how she thinks Rihanna is a whore. [Laughs.] And I don’t know how. She’s the only comedian in the world where people would be okay with that. I love it because audiences love her so much, but she does ruin it, she does push them to the point of “Oh no, that’s too much.” She’s doing this routine about how she thinks Mexicans are ugly. [Laughs.] 

And that’s not okay, right? It’s not funny, but she brings the audience through the moment to the point where they go from hating her to being like, “You know what? I think Joan Rivers has a point!” [Laughs.] And you find yourself laughing at this horrible thing. What I love about her is that she’s so clearly—like every good comedian is—frail, and you just know she hates herself more than who she’s pretending to hate on stage. It’s what’s so fun about Joan Rivers to me. Like she’s making fun of Rihanna because, apparently, Rihanna is a whore. And you’re looking at her and looking at all her plastic surgery, and you can’t be angry with her because you feel a bit bad for her. You know? 

I saw her documentary [Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work]. To a comedian, that’s the saddest movie in the world. As far as depressing movies that I’ve seen go, the Joan Rivers one is closely followed by Marley And Me. She’s been doing stand-up for like 40 years, and she’s been doing it incredibly. Every gig, she fucking kills it. She smashes it. And still, after 40 years, in this documentary, she’s worried that she’s going to walk on stage and they’re not going to like her. Every comedian I know watches that movie, and they realize that’s a feeling that is never going to go away. As long as you’ve got this job, you’re going to feel like that. Nothing has made me more depressed than watching that movie. 

AVC: She’s made a career out of being honest. She’s honest about her plastic surgery. She’s honest about her falling out with Johnny Carson and her second husband’s suicide. How important do you think that honesty is to Joan Rivers?

JT: My favorite stand-up comedians always have this subtext of, “I’m fucked. These are some fucked things.”—I shouldn’t swear so much. “I’m rubbish and here are some rubbish things about me.” And Joan goes on to say some rubbish things about other people, and to me, the point of most good stand-up comedy is we’re all rubbish, but it’s fine. It’s okay. You don’t need to worry about that. We can still have a fun time even though we all suck, and I think that’s the central theme of all of Joan Rivers’ stuff. Like when I did this gig with her on the weekend, she did this bit about that cook, that lady that was saying “nigger” a lot. 

AVC: Paula Deen. 

JT: Paula Deen. And she was like, “Paula Deen is getting in trouble for saying…” she didn’t say “n-word,” she said, “nigga,” which I didn’t realize we were allowed to do. And she was like, “Who cares?! Everyone is getting so offended! You’re a nigger! You’re a kike! You’re a chink! You’re a faggot! We’re all something! Get over it!” I don’t know quite what the point of that was. I don’t know if it was just an excuse to say a lot of offensive words in a room, which is fun, or whether it was this noble point about how everybody has their problems, and we should be allowed to laugh at everyone else’s problems and our own. I think that’s what’s so fun about her: She’s honest about herself, and so it’s a license to say that about other people. 

AVC: Did you get to meet her while you were in Montreal?

JT: Yeah, I met her because she introduced me, and she said, “Our next act is so gay and so Australian he could be Liza Minnelli’s next husband! Josh Thomas!” And afterward—apparently she liked me—she was like, “Where’s Josh?!” So, we had a chat and she slapped me, which was the most exciting moment of my life.

AVC: You talked a little bit about her offensive humor, but she’s able to get away with that. Why do you think that is?

JT: Like I said before, she’s so honest about herself. She teases herself first. I think that’s quite a weak reason to do a routine about how Mexicans are ugly, which is one of the most offensive stand-up routines I can think of. But, I think of her performance and she’s so brazen. One of the important things in comedy is that you never apologize, right? If I’m doing a gig and being offensive, I’ll just say, “Fuck you!” You know? Then they stop being offended. So she does this hilarious thing all the way through her act where she’ll say something and people will say, “Ahhhh!!!” and she’ll say, “What, am I wrong? Am I incorrect? Is it not true? Help me here! Have I got the wrong impression about this?” And the audience, she doesn’t give them a chance to indulge in how offended they are, she just moves on and is like, “Screw you, this is what’s happening.”

But she’s been around for 40 years, so if you’re going to watch Joan Rivers, you know what you’ve signed up for. You can’t walk in there, leave and say, [Fakes indignation.] “I can’t believe she said that about fat people!” That’s what you’ve come for. Also, she is coming from a more old-school stand-up world, and that’s what she’s always done, so she’s sort of got this license direct from the ’70s.

AVC: What do you draw from her work?

JT: I mean, she’s so different to me, which is why I love her. I hate watching stand-ups. But I think we both have that kind of theory that stand-up comedy should talk about what people are ashamed of, or what’s horrible in a way that makes people laugh, and think in a cathartic way that it doesn’t matter as much as we thought it mattered.

More Fan Up