1. She was thoughtful.
There is a difference between being nice, or polite, and being thoughtful. Nice people go through the motions. Thoughtful people go out of their way to make other people feel good. Having your assistant send a thank you note is nice. Sending a personalized note to your security guard when his grandmother passes away is thoughtful. On-stage she was known for her ruthlessness, but off-stage she was known for her generosity.
2. She was supportive of everyone she worked with.
Comedy, similar to any area in the entertainment industry, is full of egos. I have never understood how admitting someone else is funny or talented makes you less funny or talented. Joan faced a lot of rejection early on in her career. But it never made her bitter. She also could have been threatened by younger, newer comics. But she wasn’t. Perhaps it’s because she understood the gravity of Johnny Carson’s words to her, “You’re gonna be a star”. One of her writers wrote, “When she spoke to you she had a way of making you feel like you were a treasure that someday everyone would understand the value of.” Joan understood that it isn’t enough to appreciate someone if they don’t know how much you appreciate it.
3. Speak your truth and make them listen.
Joan Rivers single handedly opened the door for women to start talking about themselves, and whatever else they wanted to say. She never asked, “What do they want to hear?” Instead she asked, “What do I want to say?”. If you didn’t want to hear it, she didn’t care. At the time she was starting out, women were neither conditioned nor encouraged to be loud, crass, blunt, or any of the things that Joan epitomizes. Women were encourage to be reserved, polite, and laugh at men’s jokes. Then along came Joan Rivers, determined to “speak the truth and make them listen”. Even today, I have sensed this tension as a female comedian, knowing you’re going somewhere that might make people uncomfortable can be intimidating. I’m not so sure I would have had the courage to be the first to do it. And thanks to Joan, I didn’t have to be.
4. She talked to the audience, not at them.
This was another difference that took a very long time for me to understand. For the first few years of stand-up, I was a version of myself telling jokes to an audience. When you watch Joan Rivers, you feel like she’s talking to you. Before, “Who are you wearing?” her famous line was, “Can we talk?” This disarms the audience, immediately connects to them, & lets them know she’s speaking honestly. I realized you can’t be yourself if you aren’t willing to talk about yourself. Joan Rivers taught me to stop looking outward for material and to look inward. Often the things you don’t want to look at is where your best material lies.
5. She didn’t let men dictate what her comedy was about.
This cost her years of rejection, but it also gained her years of success. To this day, there are double standards for women. Early on, I used to doubt my material for fear that no one wanted to hear it, or more specifically, no one wanted to hear it from me. I have had many occasions in which I went somewhere men felt like was their territory and they attempted to knock me down.
One night I actually had a comic come up to me after my set to give me some unwarranted advice. He said, “You don’t understand men. You only talk about the female perspective. And you’re gonna lose half your audience if you don’t understand the male side.” There was a time where I was too insecure and naive to have been able to see that he was completely wrong. But after watching Joan’s standup, and her documentary, A Piece Of Work, I knew better. Joan Rivers would have told him to go f*ck himself. I’m not as ballsy, so I politely said, “Well, I am a female. So it’s going to be from my perspective.”
I loved watching her say something controversial and just say “Oh grow up!”, or “Oh, please!”. These reactions completely flip the switch on the audience. Instead of letting them make her feel weird about what she’s saying, she makes them feel weird for feeling weird about it. And that is now why I can confidently make poop jokes on stage, which any of my friends know, is one of my passions. Whenever I sense someone in the audience getting uncomfortable, I imagine Joan in that situation and I call them out by saying, “Yeah, women poop. GET OVER IT.”
6. She was as harsh on herself as she was on others.
There’s that saying, “You can’t love someone until you love yourself.” When it comes to comedy, it should be, “You can’t make fun of someone until you make fun of yourself.” Joan was a master at both. Yes, she did once say that “all babies look like Renee Zellweger pushed against a glass window”. But she also said, “I’ve had so much plastic surgery when I die they will donate my body to tupperware.” She was as brutal about herself as she was about others, which is why she was able to get away with it.
7. She used humor to get through her darkest moments.
Among the many hardships Joan endured, the suicide of her husband of 22 years was undoubtedly the biggest heartbreak she would have to endure. In her E! True Hollywood Story, she spoke about how much she and her husband Edgar struggled once her show was canceled from Fox. She had also been banned from the Tonight Show, and her career seemed to be at a dead end. She actually got to a point where she almost killed herself. And her dog saved her. He jumped into her lap and she thought, “You need me. No one is going to take care of you.” As dark and depressing as that story is, I laughed. And I realized it was her remarkable ability to laugh in the face of darkness, not her ability to laugh at it behind it’s back. Of course, it wasn’t her dog that stopped her from committing suicide. It was a moment that took her out of that place, and allowed her to realize that there were others that needed her, specifically her daughter Melissa, and that she had to push through.
In an interview for People, Joan talks about her husband’s suicide. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Why didn’t he remember that, that night in Philly?” Of course, her ability to turn a past experience in to pain was impressive. Upon returning to stand-up after her husband’s suicide she immediately broke the ice with the audience by saying, “My husband killed himself and it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head.” Using her pain to make others laugh is what made her a strong comedian. Using pain to make herself laugh, even in her darkest moments, is what made her a strong person.
8. Her work ethic and determination were unprecedented.
In this priceless clip from E!, she talks about retirement. When Jason Kennedy asks her about it, she says, “And do what? Be funny to the mail man?” She said even when she’s on vacation, she gets very antsy, because she thinks to herself, “What did I do today to help my career?” Of course, taking time off is important, but unfortunately, when it comes to comedy, there is no “off the clock”. Joan never accomplished one goal without saying, “Okay, what’s next?”. Some argue that this type of mentality would cause one to burn out. But in my mind, it’s what kept her going.
9. She never took anything for granted.
Joan understood more than anyone that one day you can be on top of the world, and the next day you can have nothing. There are no guarantees in this business. And if there is one quote of hers that truly speaks to me, it’s this: “Nothing is yours permanently, so you better enjoy it while it’s happening.”
10. She never stopped writing.
If you’ve ever seen A Piece Of Work, you remember the scene where she opens her filing cabinet, or actually, several filing cabinets, all filled with jokes. In addition, she was written 12 books. TWELVE. That is outrageous to me. What’s so amazing to me about this is it illustrates just how personal her comedy was. When something was no longer relevant or true to her life, she didn’t want to talk about it. And when something new happened, she started immediately. One of my favorite anecdotes about her is when her dog died and she called one of her writers in tears and then said asked her to write some dead dog jokes. Nothing was ever too soon, or too far.
Amy Poehler said it best, “Every woman in comedy is indebted to her.”