I’ll miss Joan Rivers, who passed away yesterday. I can’t really accept, yet, that she’s gone. The thing that really gets me is this: Rivers would have garnered some incredible material from her own death.1 The sadness of losing a legend is compounded by that fact that only her wit could make us laugh about it.
In 2010 I had the great pleasure of attending a roundtable question-and-answer session with her as part of the press blitz for the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.2 It immediately became clear that she was “on,” performing for us in the small hotel conference room on the Upper East Side. She clarified that point, as I noted in my resulting piece for Heeb Magazine:
“I’m a performer. A girlfriend of mine just told me she spent three weeks in Venice taking cooking classes. I thought, ‘I’d fucking kill myself.’ I’d rather go and perform.”
That was Rivers. A comedian to the end. Another choice quote from the film:
“When a young comedienne comes up to me and says, ‘You paved the way for me’… Paved? Paved?!’ You want to say, ‘Go fuck yourself, I’m still paving it.’”
There are so many great Joan moments that others have posted, but one of my personal favorites is still this clip from the documentary, where she takes the viewer into her card catalog of jokes.
There are funnier and more groundbreaking clips, for sure, but what always impressed me was Rivers’ tenacity. Joke-telling is hard work and she became a master not through magic but through sheer grit. She worked incredibly hard to make us laugh for decades. I, like most, had hoped to get a decade more.
That picture up top, by the way, is of my father’s band with Joan in 1991. My dad is on the right. They served as the backup band for two nights for the Jewish Federation in Philadelphia. He has nothing but good things to say about the experience, which he still remembers like it was yesterday. This has been a common refrain in eulogies, obituaries and remembrances. No matter how poisonous her tongue may have been while performing, off stage she was nothing but charming. There’s a lesson there, I’m sure.
Imagine, if you will, what she would have done with the incredible correction in her aforelinked New York Times obituary: “An earlier version of a label that appeared with this obituary on the home page of NYTimes.com misstated the year of Ms. Rivers’s death. It was 2014, of course, not 1914.”↩
As part of my coverage of the film, I also recorded a podcast with the filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg discussing Joan Rivers.↩