It's hard to know where to begin with how Joan Rivers changed my life, but I do know I would not be doing what I do if it weren't for Joan.
It starts in my Oak Park, Ill., living room and seeing her on my television, hosting "The Tonight Show": a woman, by herself on a stage, telling jokes and making people laugh. Women could do this?
Stand-up is not a gig in which you say, "It isn't rocket science." It's harder than rocket science. And like rocket science probably was for ages, comedy was not woman's work when Joan was coming up in the 1960s. A woman could know she was funny, but to make a living out of it? At that time, there was Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley, Totie Fields, and that was about it.
That's why Joan's legacy as a groundbreaking comedian deserves a spotlight beyond her current status as a reliably outrageous TMZ fixture, reality-show star and queen of the red carpet, which, let's be honest, she invented. That is to say, red carpet coverage as we know it began with Joan standing on the red carpet at an awards show, originating the phrase, "Who are you wearing?"
But while it is an impressive accomplishment that she single-handedly made two hours of celebrities walking inside a building entertaining, it's important to realize that what got her to the status she had today was the hard, grueling work of going it alone in front of a crowd and making it laugh.
And she loved it. It's what kept her going at 81. It's both the history that earned her the stature to host two TV shows, a Web series, write books, launch products on QVC and keep her 2 million Twitter followers amused, and the fuel that drives any comedian: the thrill of standing up there alone in front of people and saying what it takes to hear that sweet roar of laughter.
What it took, by the way, was a tell-it-like-it-is, fire-and-reload shotgun style of joke telling that seemed both established and cutting edge. She worked in a one-liner format, but those punch lines about famous people and their foibles had a fresh flare to them. As she developed a reputation as a "mean comic," I began to realize something essential about Joan Rivers. The only correct response to a celebrity's hissy fit about something Joan said was, "Well, would this even be news if she weren't so funny?"
Early on in our friendship, around the time she had a recurring role as my mother on the sitcom "Suddenly Susan," I asked her, "How do you deal with the fact that you're a nice, generous woman but are thought of as this mean comic? Doesn't it drive you crazy?"
Without skipping a beat, over her usual meal of asparagus and Altoids, she answered, "Why would I care about that? Those people don't know me. As long as they're laughing, that's all I care about. Also, if they think I'm mean, maybe it's good for my career."
That's called being fearless, in case you needed another reason to worship Joan.
Then she picked up the check, by the way. She always picked up the check. One time, I was committed to getting that check first, only to find that she'd had her assistant call ahead that afternoon when she learned where I was taking her, and pre-picked up the check. I didn't even know you could do that.
But she was a trailblazer in another way too. As her stardom grew, and her brand of no-holds-barred humor set her apart, it was not unheard of for celebrities — the more level-headed ones, at least — to consider it something of a badge of honor to get razzed by Joan. Fat jokes about Elizabeth Taylor (so fat, she stands in front of the microwave and yells, "Hurry up! Hurry up!") didn't stop that friendship. I'd heard that Cher once said to Joan, who used to joke about Cher but had left her alone for a while, "What's the matter? I'm not hot enough anymore to be in the act?" I thought the story might be apocryphal, but when I asked Cher myself if she'd said that, she said, "Absolutely." Who doesn't want to be referenced by Joan Rivers?
She seemed to bring everyone around eventually. Maybe not quickly, but remember, she wasn't making fun of a famous name for that person's benefit. She had a crowd to please.
When I take meetings with network executives, regarding whatever my next dog-and-pony show may or may not be on television, I invariably get to the slightly awkward part where I say, "You do realize that not since Joan Rivers has a woman hosted a nightly network late-night talk show." Never once have I heard the response, "Of course!" Instead, I have heard everything from "No, there's that show, 'The Talk'" (a daytime panel show) to "Well now, that's all changed with Chelsea Handler and Andy Cohen." To which I respond, "Chelsea is on cable, and just because Andy Cohen is gay, it doesn't make him a female late-night talk show host."
Joan Rivers spent her entire career jumping over hurdles. She entered a system so entrenched in tradition that she basically threw a monkey wrench into the way comedic women were seen and enjoyed worldwide on every kind of medium. It is easy to admire that Joan was still working at 81. What was unparalleled was that at 81, she was the first woman in history to have three shows on at one time (a reality show, a cable fashion show and a Web talk show). She wasn't just working at 81; she approached every performance like a shotgun.
I remember seeing Frank Sinatra in his final years of performing, and you could tell that just the presence of the legend went a long way — that was understood about the evening. It was a visitation. Joan couldn't do that, and frankly wouldn't have dreamed of doing that. To see her do stand-up at 81 — and an audience did, just the night before she underwent that procedure — was to witness a committed stand-up on a mission to make you laugh.
The last dinner I had with Joan just a few weeks ago, she once again had a piece of advice for me about performing that blew me away in its simplicity and usefulness. I had told Joan about hosting an event at a rich person's house. I was given a green room-type area so I could gather my thoughts before performing, but everyone kept coming in and chirping in my ear.
"I had that experience numerous times," she said. "That's why I have a rider in my contract that says I have to have a private bathroom. That's what you need."
Joan said it didn't even have to be a bathroom. It could be a broom closet with a "Do not disturb" sign, or a public bathroom where she put up a "Bathroom out of order" sign. Whatever it was, it was a space where she could put up a mirror, check herself and get in the zone. For some reason, I love this image of Joan. Fifty years of being hilarious, of overcoming hurdles, of navigating a career that took her from the A-list to the D-list and up and down and up and down, of opportunities seized — all those books and TV shows — and injustices ignored so she could move on. No Mark Twain Prize yet? Really? But there she was, in a broom closet, gathering herself together to go do this tough but insanely rewarding job.
During that same dinner, I told her about a one-nighter I had coming up in Thackerville. Like Joan, I go where I'm wanted. Sometimes that's Carnegie, more often it's Thackerville. We laughed about the crazy places we'd hit the mike over the years, and then she said, "Oh ... everybody. Go to Thackerville, collect the check, make sure people laugh, and get a private bathroom."
Will do, Joan. And thanks.