As I came home from work today and learned of Joan Rivers’ passing, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like I lost a beloved aunt or extended member of my family.
I never met Joan Rivers and on the surface, the two of us were very different. Besides the fact she was old enough to be my grandmother, she was born to an upper-middle-class Jewish family and lived the majority of her life in New York City. By contrast, I was born into a working class family and raised in the rural South—an area of the country I still call home.
Still, Rivers was a sort of role model to me.
Through sheer talent and determination, she proved that women could be just as funny as men and she paved the way for other comedians like Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman and a host of others. Even if her humor wasn’t everyone’s personal cup of tea, we have to give her credit for her pioneering ways.
On the surface, Joan and I are as much alike as chalk and cheese. I’m a biracial, quiet girl (who would have fainted at the mere thought of performing on a stage), but I looked up to her.
Below are five lessons I learned from the life of the irreplaceable Joan Rivers:
1. Being pretty isn’t everything.
One thing that can be said about Joan Rivers is that she wasn’t afraid to poke fun of her own appearance. Even as she continued to have more and more cosmetic surgery procedures, there was still a self-deprecating way to her.
Joan Rivers may not have been a great beauty, but she had something far more important: brains. (Although I didn’t know it until I read her obituary, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Rivers was a Phi Betta Kappa graduate of Barnard College with a degree in English.)
Her intelligence was evident especially when it came to managing her career and creating new opportunities for herself. While I remember several mocking her for her QVC line of jewelry, it was nonetheless a huge success and greatly increased her personal net worth.
2. Do what you love and love what you do.
Even though her stand-up, jewelry line, and hosting for the E! TV show The Fashion Police brought her a lot of money, there is no doubt that she really enjoyed those things, and they were her passion. No matter how talented we are, if our hearts aren’t in something, it’s going to show.
While some may scoff and say it’s easy to be passionate about things you are getting paid nicely for, it’s worth knowing that for years Rivers toiled away in a series of dead-end temp jobs until her career took off. (Her parents refused to support her entertainment ambitions.)
When we are really passionate about things, it’s better to pursue them, even if we don’t succeed, rather than sit back and wonder, “What if?”
3. Humor can be a great healer.
Even though I was quite young at the time, I remember when Rivers’ husband/manager Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide.
Not only did the tabloids insinuate that Rivers was somehow responsible for not being there—The National Enquirer claimed she was off having cosmetic surgery when it was done—but she was raked over the coals by many for daring to joke about her husband’s passing. (One joke was “After Edgar killed himself, I went out to dinner with Melissa. I looked at the menu and said, ‘If Daddy were here to see these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.’ ”)
While everyone copes differently, the truth is humor can be a great way to heal, or at least to find a release—no matter how brief—when it feels that the worst possible thing has happened.
4. The importance of doing charity for the sake of charity.
When most people think of celebrity philanthropists past and present, the late Elizabeth Taylor, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie probably come to mind. However, Rivers did a considerable amount of charity including AIDS charities, animal organizations and Meals on Wheels. (In the 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: What a Piece of Work, it was revealed that she had been involved Meals on Wheels since the early 1980s and not only prepared meals but in many cases, personally delivered them to the recipients.)
It didn’t seem she was doing this because she was looking for accolades. Rather, it seemed she was doing it out of sincerity which should be the first and foremost reason to do any sort of charity work.
5. Don’t forget your roots.
Unlike many people of her generation, Rivers never shied away from her heritage. Indeed, she took pride in her Jewish roots and her “Jewish princess” act was a huge part of her stand-up.
Likewise, she never forgot the small clubs she started out in. (The above referenced documentary noted that even at the time they shot the feature, she still performed in small clubs in NYC at least once per week.)
Sometimes, it’s easy for successful people to forget (or want to forget) their beginnings. However, Joan Rivers not only showed the importance of remembering, but how it could actually be an asset: in her case, it made her stand out and even more unique in a sea of comedians.
In closing, the lessons that I learned from Joan Rivers are universal.
While the woman may be dead, her work lives on movies, books and taped appearances.
Rest in peace. You were truly an original.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
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