First and foremost, Joan Rivers made me laugh. She was outrageous, funny, and outrageously funny. Her humor was bawdy, biting, self-deprecating. And often, we laughed in spite of ourselves.
As has been quoted so many times – Joan Rivers said aloud what others were thinking.
If we look at the career of Joan Rivers and the tributes that continue to appear since her death on September 4, 2014, we hear her described as a trailblazer, one of a kind, irreplaceable.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, she was more than another New York comic. She was a writer, author, producer, designer, business woman, talk show host, fashionista, and “personality.” That list covers a lot of ground; it hardly seems adequate to capture the irrepressible spirit and razor sharp wit that has kept me – and millions of others – laughing for more years than we care to admit.
In the past few days, as I’ve read about her life, I’ve learned much more about this remarkable woman. Joan Rivers was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard, a Grammy Award nominee, a Tony Award nominee and an Emmy Award winner for her daytime talk show of five seasons. She was the author of several books, the most recent, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” released on July 1. And all you have to do is peek at the first page and trust me – you’ll be rolling your eyes, sniggering though you know you shouldn’t, and shaking your head. Right from the opening paragraph, it’s pure Joan.
The 81-year-old legend had been working for some 50 years, and was arguably at the height of her career when she died. She began in New York, and was performing stand-up in the 1960s, enjoyed a break-through appearance in 1965 on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and a year later appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. By 1968 her career was thriving.
As this column at The Broad Side highlights, she opened more doors for women than she may have realized, in part because she dared:
“… to make jokes about things that polite ladies just didn’t talk about in the pre-women’s lib days.”
Eventually, Joan Rivers became the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson, and was the first woman to host a late night show. Although her friendship with Carson ended in a rift in 1986, she went on to reinvent herself professionally. More importantly, she rebuilt her world personally, following the tragic suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, in 1987.
Though I may be old enough to recall her “Can we tawk” shtick from decades back, many more know her from Red Carpet interviews at award shows and E! Entertainment’s Fashion Police. I would also like to mention the 2010 documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” which is a behind-the-scenes look at the smarts, stamina and grueling schedule of the then 76-year-old performer. I watched this film about two years ago, and highly recommend it to anyone who needs a reminder of what it means to persevere, and even more so – that age need not be a barrier to pursuing our dreams and living life fully.
For all of the controversy she caused – and there has been some – Joan Rivers is an example of resilience, bravery, work ethic, vitality, laughter, and the importance of family. I would like to address that last mention in particular, which is one more reason for my admiration.
It is hard enough to finish the job of raising children on one’s own. I cannot imagine what it is like to come back from a spouse’s suicide, especially when you’re in the public eye.
No matter the circumstances, parenting solo is never a given, so we rally our resources, we find our strength, and we rise to the occasion. Joan’s daughter, Melissa Rivers, 46, is a divorced mom. Her son, Cooper, is now 13. Those of us who watched Joan and Melissa’s reality show saw the family dynamics in action: Joan watching out for Melissa and Cooper (and getting into trouble for meddling from time to time); Melissa in a relationship; the heartbreak when her relationship ended badly; and the way the family pulled together through a very difficult time.
Joan fussed over her daughter; she doted on her grandson. It was good television, and aptly named – “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” Yet it was something more: The hurts were real, the love was real. Those who know this mother-daughter pair attest to that.
As a viewer, I watched religiously and traveled a sentimental road from misty to mirthful, often relating to Melissa, particularly as a single mother of sons. I was also reminded of my own ballsy, bawdy Jewish mother – and the relationship I wish we had known. Yet seeing Joan and Melissa Rivers together, I was inspired and heartened by their mutual trust, friendship, and fierce protectiveness of each other.
From poking fun at her own cosmetic surgery to critiquing the lifestyle of other celebrities, even her most cringe-worthy remarks kept Joan Rivers “relevant.” She offended some; she was adored by many. It has been reported that her funeral service, which took place today at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, was “the kind of star-studded send-off she wanted.”
To me, Joan Rivers will remain an example of an indomitable spirit, an unapologetic wit, unconditional mother-love, and a formidable example of standing up to adversity. Her legacy is more than one of laughter; it is a gift of life lessons.