Joan Rivers was a hell of a performer. Envision yourself at 81. Do you think you’re going to have a TV show and regular stage performances? I’ll be lucky if I haven’t been dead for a decade when I’m 81.
Her work ethic was insane. For any fan of comedy, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is mandatory. These old comedians hoard jokes in their file cabinets, as if they may someday need to dig up an old Henry Kissinger joke and rework it for some reason. Comedy rarely ages well. But Joan did.
Though no one really thinks of her as an improviser, Joan Rivers performed at Second City back in 1961. The most oft-repeated story of her time there involves the father of modern improv, Del Close. The two were doing a scene that went something like this…
Joan: “I want a divorce!”
Del: “But honey, what about the kids?”
Joan: “We don’t have any kids!”
The audience laughed. Del fumed.
Was she denying Del by suggesting they don’t have kids? Possibly. But I believe many savvy improvisers could have sustained that scene. And you could read Del’s line as an inquiry about hypothetical kids. No matter. Joan went for the joke. And she always went for the joke.
With that mentality, she was better suited for stand-up. There, she excelled. Joan Rivers was not everyone’s cup of tea, but she found her niche and she out Joaned any other Joans out there. We should all be so fearless.
She left behind this advice to aspiring comedians…
First of all, don’t worry about the money. Love the process. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Louis C.K. started hitting in his 40s; he’d been doing it for 20 years. And don’t settle. I don’t want to ever hear, “It’s good enough.” Then it’s not good enough. Don’t ever underestimate your audience. They can tell when it isn’t true. Also: Ignore your competition. A Mafia guy in Vegas gave me this advice: “Run your own race, put on your blinders.” Don’t worry about how others are doing. Something better will come.
Ignore aging: Comedy is the one place it doesn’t matter. It matters in singing because the voice goes. It matters certainly in acting because you’re no longer the sexpot. But in comedy, if you can tell a joke, they will gather around your deathbed. If you’re funny, you’re funny. Isn’t that wonderful?
If there is a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do. It is my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That is my rush. I get it nowhere else.
What pleasure you feel when you’ve kept people happy for an hour and a half. They’ve forgotten their troubles. It’s great. There’s nothing like it in the world. When everybody’s laughing, it’s a party. And then you get a check at the end. That’s very nice.