Carry on Laughing: Joan Rivers

Age did not endanger her spectacular exuberance. She worked harder than anyone else, jet-setting from country to country taping multiple shows, doing stand-up comedy, and selling books as well as her clothing and jewelry lines.

Joan Rivers was one fierce bitch. That unmistakable arresting husk of her voice on the red carpet sounded out like a gunshot in a bank. Like an elegant vixen preying on the beautiful birds of Hollywood, Rivers would tear celebrities shred by shred. The A-list's most stylish and most funny Queen of Mean. Rivers used mockery as an invaluable instrument to remind those whom take themselves too seriously to lighten up. Everything from plastic surgery to abysmal fashion choices, marriage failures to weight issues, compromising personal scandals to love affairs, nothing was beyond a good joke. Lest we forget, however, it is only but just to remember that on herself Rivers was hardest of all. Another point of order in commemoration, would be to observe the fact she had a great big heart.

Comedy, when Joan started out, was not for girls. One had to be white, middle-aged, and male. Her parents were unyielding in their refusal to support Joan's acting ambitions, which was her endmost goal, as a result she suffered out years as an office temp while taking smaller roles off of Broadway. Stand-up comedy was a crutch for her acting, and she worked everywhere from strip clubs to dour little cafes, hideous clubs to dirty bars, and was accustomed to being fired regularly. Dying a thousand times on stage, she said, makes one unafraid of death itself. She then in turn never fired a single employee from her jewelry and fashion business, believing in respecting everyone's contribution to the business. Many of her staff stayed for decades and were in ways like family to her. She made sure their children all received private education and that they all had private health insurance. Realizing her innate skill at making people laugh, and acknowledging that comedy paid more than her drab office job, she became a comedic writer and performer. "Comedy is like herpes," she said, "you either have it or you don't".

Joan was one of the first stand-up comedy performers to "use her own life experience as the focus for her material. Her generation of mainstream stand-up comedy performers were all men. It was Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, George Carlin, and Dick Cavett. Joan was never invited to hang out with the men. They would all meet up after and go for sandwiches and drinks, and Joan would be left behind. She was the last one in the group to break through, and the last one to be asked to go on Late Night with Johnny Carson. She once said: "Ignore your competition. A Mafia guy in Vegas gave me this advice: 'Run your own race, put on your own blinders.' Don't worry about how others are doing. Something better will come."

Seven times she was brought to the Carson show, where she was interviewed and auditioned each of the seven times and by seven different people, all of whom rejected her over a period of three years. When one comedian bombed, Joan was asked to fill in. It was then, live on air in 1965, that the king of late night, Johnny Carson, said "You're gonna be a star." In the 1970s, Joan did some of the opening monologues, and occasionally hosted the show. Conan O'Brien described Rivers' hosting during Carson's holidays, as a major event where the whole country would be talking about her shows and the outrageous and edgy style she conducted them with. Rivers helped pave the way for a whole generation of women standup comics to hold their own beside men. When younger women would call her a legend and tell her how much of an inspiration she was, of it she would retort, "fuck them, I'm not finished yet".

Before Joan Rivers, women performers rarely, if ever, discussed their own sexuality, despite it being one of the most natural things in the world; her comedy was fettled with self-deprecating and embarrassing references to her own private life. She did this to break down barriers and change the discourse as to what should be allowed to be spoken of. The male comedians she started off with had all gotten their own shows. After 18 years, Joan was offered her own show on Fox Network on a $10 million contract. The first person she called was Carson, and he hung up and never again spoke to her. Also, he denied that she ever had called him. Probably because she was a woman and he felt he had some ownership for discovering her. Nothing would stop her from being successful in showbiz.

After less than a year on the air, Joan was told that the producers wanted rid of her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, though they would like to keep her as she was making them money. Betrayal of her own husband was rejected without equivocation and she made the point that they came as a package deal. Her loyalty was unwavering. Fox then told her that her following show would be her last one. In 1987, Joan and Edgar moved to Ireland to get their shit together, while Joan's career was in tatters. Edgar fell into a severe depression after a heart attack and took pills to overdose in a Philadelphia hotel room where he died. He made three tapes, one for Joan, one for their then fourteen year old daughter Melissa, and one for his closest friend. Edgar had also made unsound investments and left Joan and Melissa in tremendous financial distress. If he were here now, Joan used to say, I would kill him all over again.

When someone from the hospital rang her home to inform her of Edgar's suicide, Joan was away getting liposuction when Melissa answered. A hospital official asked if Joan was home. Melissa said she was not. The official then did something wickedly bad and marvelously stupid, he told a fourteen year old girl that her father had killed himself, and that she should probably tell her mother. For a year after, with the outplay of events as so they happened, Melissa began to hold the tragedy against Joan, recluded from her, and then froze her out altogether for a time. Joan revealed years later she herself decided to take her own life one day, while sitting in a chair her dog ran in and sat on her lap gazing up at her. This titchy display of affection was reason enough not to go through with the act. She became a lifelong advocate of suicide prevention.

She was intermittently successful soon around thereafter: her Joan Rivers Worldwide Inc business, selling lavish costume jewelry on television shopping channels, turned over more than $25 million a year at its height. However, things took a bad turn when a partner in the business absconded with $37 million. "I used to wake up thinking of that number," Rivers recalled. The partner went to jail but Rivers had to sell her name and jewelry designs to stave off bankruptcy. Eventually, after much talking therapy, her and Melissa conciliated. Joan's own therapist and very close friend was then diagnosed with aids. She was with even him when he died. "I don't want to die" were his last words, to which Joan could only manage, "Relax, it's gonna be better". Rivers actually never believed in an afterlife, so it was important to her to have the best time in the here and now. "You live the great New York Life", a friend once said to her over lunch. "I know", she replied. She was a Bon Vivant and a luxurist.

Joan worked damn hard to get what she had and to get to where she was. She brazened over sixty years in show business, appeared in thousands of TV shows, more than a dozen films and many nightclub appearances; wrote twelve best-selling books, raised millions for causes including AIDS (helping found the charity 'Gods Love We Deliver' for immobilised AIDS patients), Guide Dogs for the Blind, Suicide Awareness, Cancer Research, and Cystic Fibrosis; and she herself amassed about $290 million. Joan never really seemed to feel part of the elite. She understood the Hollywood machine and power structures in our culture and calculatedly satirized the powerful, the famous, the beautiful, the privileged, and the wealthy. She was socially liberal and economically and financially conservative. Joan knew as long as any group within a society that consciously preserves its identity, should then be a fair target for satire. Questioning the absurd beliefs of other people makes one reflect on the potential absurdity of oneself.

Age did not endanger her spectacular exuberance. She worked harder than anyone else, jet-setting from country to country taping multiple shows, doing stand-up comedy, and selling books as well as her clothing and jewelry lines. As a journalist I have been around some of the most famous celebrities in the world, but I could not believe how accessible Joan Rivers was to her fans. There seemed to be a sincere warmth about her, a leal, and when I seen her addressing her fans on a one-to-one basis she did not ignore or patronize them in the least. She treated them so, so, well. I seen her in Dublin in 2008 where I witnessed a sincere act of kindness in between the two back-to-back shows she was performing. An emotionally overwhelmed fan was stricken with star paralysis and was visibly shaken from meeting her, whom he so obviously adored. She gave him a great big bear-hug and spontaneously took out some of her hair extensions and said "Here my darling, take some of me home with you."

Of course her kindness very often is not recognized for her being as she was, the grand dame of celebrity assassination, and a razor sharp critic of modern living. Rivers had no filter and cursed in public. It was a stylistic decision, a challenge to respectability. Her being such a lady allowed her to subvert the perceptions of manners and acceptable conduct. It was such a cunning and gallant choice. There are many lessons to be taken from her: Be your own judge, never take yourself too seriously as it can lead to a sort of blindness, understand the importance of mocking the elite of a society for the good of its own health, speak out now rather than not at all, respect those whom admire you and treat you well, stick by what you believe and never apologize for telling the truth, and be prepared to be hated by those of whom you speak ill. Joan Rivers lived well her life and kept moving no matter how many times life tried to slow her down. She was an icon, she was a fighter, she was important.

Before You Go