I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I first encountered Joan Rivers, but to be honest, I almost feel as though there wasn’t one. To me, it seems like Joan was always around, making me laugh, making me strong and making me … me.
I know that Joan got a lot of flak in her most recent years, especially as she joined the awards show critique circuit, but in my mind, she’s never done wrong. That’s not to say that she hasn’t said some particularly sassy things that I don’t know if I could ever even dream up in a angry fever haze. But that’s just it, isn’t it? She always said what she wanted to say and didn’t give a flying fuck what you thought about it. Unless, of course, you laughed. And then she aimed to do everything to keep the party going.
The thing about Joan that everyone knows is that she lived to make everyone’s funny bone feel like it was being groped by the finest of her boa feathers. She lived to do this right until Thursday, the day that she so unfortunately passed. No matter what was going on with her personally (and if you’ve seen her stellar documentary A Piece of Work, or followed her backstory, you know she’s been through some truly, truly rough stuff), she was always on, always looking for the perfect moment to make a crack at someone, something. This was true of her on the red carpets, on Fashion Police, in her stand-up shows, on Carson, in movies like Muppets Take Manhattan and Spaceballs, on Celebrity Apprentice, in her Shopping Channel bits, and even on the street. She was quite frankly the definition of a one-woman show and the world was, as some wannabe comic once said, her stage.
Although I was probably immediately entranced by her outrageous sense of fashion (I was raised on her Oscar coverage), what I grew to love, respect and look up to about Joan was her epic work ethic. This woman was a ball buster from the start of her career to the end, crashing and keeping down gender barriers in the comedy game when they were built to last, and working her ass off well into her 80s. Really, had she not suffered complications during a recent surgery, she would have kept going, kept trying to take the piss out of everything (including her ability to piss, apparently, as I do recall her once saying she couldn’t wear yellow anymore as it matched her catheter too closely), into the next century. You could foretell this from the fact that even in periods she might have deemed dark, she was present somewhere, whether by her own doing or by someone else’s (I’ll never forget hearing this one short-lived comedy show I was obsessed with in my teens make a surprise joke about her, calling her a forever surprised iguana). She talked about this fact candidly in A Piece of Work too, with one memorable scene having her ask the camera “You know what fear is?” only to point to a blank agenda book.
Since I was a young overachiever–you know, spending nights I could have been out with friends studying–I have always sort of wondered if there was something wrong with my work ethic. Specifically, I wondered, if I was pushing myself too far for no real–or rather, important–reason. But watching Joan consistently work it year after year, I came to realize that I had plenty of reason to be acting this way. I was putting in the work not because I thought I had to, but because I wanted to. Because, like Joan, I had dreams and goals and ideas for the future. And I wanted to see them through to the best of my ability.
It’s because of this personality trait that I now only lovingly refer to as a “quirk,” I have gotten to a lot of places, career-wise, my adolescent self never would have thought possible. I got into the journalism school I wanted to go to. I got a job doing what I wanted to do pretty soon after graduation. I got to see my baby, this site, grow and grow and grow into a safe space for ladies with opinions as strong as Joan’s perfume. I might be at a bit of a crossroads now with it all, thanks mainly to the sad state of budgets in journalism, but I am not going to stop trying and pushing. Because that’s not something that Joan ever did, not even when she easily could have been semi-retired, simply going out of the house to do appearances at occasional roasts or to support her daughter and coworker Melissa.
What’s more is, like Joan, I’m going to keep doing it with the same old sarcastic and salty sense of humour. When she wasn’t teaching me to haul tush, Joan showed me that it’s okay–not inappropriate, or dirty–to be racy and suggestive in talking about things. In fact, those two things can be the makings of some truly, truly funny bits and shits. Swear words are not bad, as some adults or teachers might have made me think (I’ll never forget, or regret, saying “Shit!” when I messed up in French class once, and my teacher not thinking my clever response to her “Pardon?”–“Merde!”–was clever at all), but just wonderfully formed hyperboles that can take a joke from “awesome” to “motherfucking awesome.” And well-placed jabs and biting remarks are just fine (you know, just like the ones the haters are gonna throw at you), provided that you back them up with some genuine kindness and care for people who deserve it.
That’s what some people missed about Joan. She was a truly kind soul underneath all the branded vitriol. She gave her heart and her money to so many people less fortunate than her, whether they be family and friends, or complete strangers. I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet her last fall (I took a trip to Brooklyn to cover The Shopping Channel’s special 24-hour stint there, which she and Isaac Mizrahi participated in, for TV Guide Canada) and she was both as sharp and as soft with me as could be. While she certainly didn’t shy away from getting real about certain people (I remember some choice words about someone messing with her pal Donald Trump), she also greeted me with a compliment that I know was genuine (the Fashion Police chief would not tell someone she looked “so fashionable” in her lacy red dress and jean jacket and then model her Shopping Channel model’s look for the day after it if she was lying, right?). And after our interview, in which I did admittedly say that she was one of my biggest influences, she wouldn’t let me leave without a parting gift: a pair of earrings from her jewellery line (she said, and I quote, “If they are too old lady for you, that’s fine. Just don’t tell me and give them to someone you don’t like”). She also told me to come over and sit on her lap for a photo, a moment I will seriously cherish forever. Oh, and I saw her take photos with every single person on the TSC crew that asked that day, even though it meant she got home late.
I know it’s said that you should never meet your idols, but I am so glad I got the chance to and solidify what I already knew: that Joan was the perfect person to count as such a thing. She remains one of the best–if not the–interviewees I’ve ever dealt with, not to mention the coolest, funniest, nicest and most legitimately genuine human beings I have ever met. While her gags might not have always been, the woman was a class act, a living, breathing teachable moment for us all.
Even when I heard she was in the hospital last week, I was convinced that Joan would continue to school us all, coming out of things as quick as her wit. But I also prepared myself for the worst, especially as I talked to my mom about the possibility.
“How do you feel [about it]?” Mama Gagne asked over the weekend as I came home for a visit, before noting that I had “loved Joan since [I was] little.” I didn’t have a full answer at the time (hey, I didn’t really want to consider it), but now I will just say that yes, I loved her when I was little, and–as I sit here in bed with my DVD of A Piece of Work on in the background–I will love her until I’m big. Or still little. Or whatever the fuck. As long as I’m still the me Joan taught me to be, agenda and joke book brimming at every moment, I’ll be laughing ’til the end too.