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Joan Rivers series that sparked ‘Jewface’ debate scrapped by Showtime

Plans for ‘The Comeback Girl’ starring Kathryn Hahn dropped by the network after it failed to secure rights from daughter Melissa Rivers

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Joan Rivers (left), and daughter Melissa Rivers at the 2013 Matrix New York Women in Communications Awards, in New York, April 22, 2013. (AP/Evan Agostini/Invision)
Joan Rivers (left), and daughter Melissa Rivers at the 2013 Matrix New York Women in Communications Awards, in New York, April 22, 2013. (AP/Evan Agostini/Invision)

A TV series about the life of the late comedian Joan Rivers will not be moving forward after the network failed to secure the rights to tell her story.

The Showtime series was announced last month, with actress Kathryn Hahn cast in the lead role as Rivers, who died in 2014 at age 81.

But Variety reported Tuesday that the network did not manage to secure the rights to create an authorized production, which are held by Rivers’ daughter, Melissa Rivers. Without those rights, the series, titled “The Comeback Girl,” would not be allowed to use jokes or catchphrases made popular by Rivers, and could run into legal issues if it pursued the project.

A spokesperson for Melissa Rivers confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that negotiations over the project ended without a deal, and that there are no current biographical projects in the works about her mother.

The decision to cast Hahn as Rivers reignited a debate about the representation of Jews onscreen, after some figures decried casting the non-Jewish Hahn as the deeply Jewish Rivers.

Actress and comedian Sarah Silverman was among the most outspoken critics, saying on her podcast that: “One could argue, for instance, that a gentile playing Joan Rivers correctly would be doing what is actually called ‘Jewface.’”

Kathryn Hahn arrives at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

“I think acting is acting and I get that all this identity politics is annoying,” added Silverman, a comedian and actress whose sister lives in Israel. “I love watching an actor play a character that is wildly different than who they are — but right now, representation fucking matters. So it has to finally also matter for Jews as well.”

Tony Shalhoub, the actor of Christian Lebanese descent who plays the very Jewish Abe Weissman on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” pushed back against the outcry.

“I always feel that we’re actors,” Shalhoub said. “We were trained to — at least I was — to not play myself, to play characters. And so it’s troubling to me that they’re limiting actors.”

Shalhoub added that if “we start to go down that road, I don’t know where it ends. Are people who are members of the Mafia, are they going to be upset that people who haven’t actually committed those types of crimes are playing those roles?”

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