As you’ve probably read by now, Joan Rivers has died.
I’ll admit that when she was taken to the hospital last week after a complication from an outpatient throat surgery, I was nervous. After all, despite her young spirit, she was 81 years old and surgical problems for people at that age don’t usually end well. When she stayed in serious condition for days after and was eventually moved out of the ICU but didn’t issue a statement herself, I didn’t think she was going to make it. Sadly, today, she took her last breath. When I spoke with Rob Zombie earlier this year for Nerdist, I told him that he and Joan Rivers were the two people I was dying to interview. He laughed and told me he met Joan at a Howard Stern party and that she was super nice. I never got a chance to meet her and the image of her and Miss Piggy will stay pinned to my Pinterest board titled “Talk To Me!” forever.
Websites and media outlets post tributes and things of that nature for days after we lose an iconic figure in pop culture and honestly, contributing my little two cents on such a legend did make me nervous. Because as much as I love Spaceballs and her sassy commentary on couture, that’s not what my remembrance is going to be about.
Joan mattered to me because she demonstrated, often times very publicly and quite hilariously, not just what it was like to be a woman but to be a certain kind of woman. The kind of woman that makes people very nervous just by being herself and is faced with a choice early in her life: speak out and face the consequences or shut up and face a whole different set of consequences! That woman is smart and quick witted. That woman is the hardest working person in the room and won’t stop for anything, even when her field is a notorious boys club or when she’s passed over for a job that she knows she deserves (like, say, something in late night?). But that woman doesn’t quit. That woman rises, again and again, because it’s what she was born to do, no matter how hard it may be.
That woman has a voice and she uses it. When faced with a list of appropriate items and topics that nice girls who boys would like should talk about, she breaks the rules, tells it likes it is, and speaks out about what matters to her, like say, abortion? I mean, “appendectomies” in Cuba…
That woman knows who she is and, yes, sometimes grapples with it. This isn’t a woman who is “perfect” and she knows that. In our social media saturated existence, everyone is photographed, scrutinized, commented on, bullied, picked on, teased on a regular basis, and yet, if you know Joan’s comedy, you know she was ahead of the curve even regarding criticism, and lived with a mental YouTube comment board in her head throughout her entire life. Something, I’m willing to bet, a lot of men and women who feel badly about themselves could relate to. Something that may lead a person to extreme measures. Like, snarky fashion commentary or plastic surgery, perhaps?
And yet, not in spite of but because of all this darkness and all of these struggles, Joan became a true, one-of-a-kind comedy legend. I used to think it was a Jewish thing – I think most of us are able to laugh during fairly dark situations. Heck, even The Talmud is a pretty funny book! But now that I’ve really thought about it, it’s also a woman thing. Regarding her husband’s suicide, Joan told NPR’s Terry Gross a few years ago, “My first joke was, ‘My husband killed himself and left a message that I have to visit him every day, so I had him cremated and sprinkled him in Neiman Marcus. Haven’t missed a day.’ And that’s how I get through life, Terry.”
To quote another pretty funny book, the play Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” I think that was it with Joan. A Jewish, steel magnolia. I’m sorry I never got to hug you, Joan. Thank you for teaching me that being smart and making people laugh and working hard was OK, even if some people might have a big problem with it.
I’ll be making a donation to Neiman Marcus in your honor.