Joan Rivers: Lessons on life (and comedy)

Comedian Joan Rivers was known for her sharp tongue and quick wit. Here are some of the most memorable moments from her more than four decades in the spotlight. (Pamela Kirkland/The Washington Post)

Comedic giant Joan Rivers, who died Thursday, left a legacy that touched multiple generations across a decades-spanning career. The pioneering entertainer bestowed gems of knowledge — often encapsulated in painfully hilarious barbs — that still ring true and have been passed around on social media in remembrance after her passing. Here’s a look back on some of the wisdom she’s left behind, and her reflections:

On how to perform:

In 1986, Rivers recounted to The Washington Post’s David Richards some advice she received from Bill Cosby: “There’s no kindness in comedy.” She continued:

“He’s very smart, Bill. He said the difference between fame and non-fame for a comedian is that if you’re not famous the audience will give you a minute and a half before they make up their minds. If you’re famous, they’ll give you four or five minutes. Then it’s over. So you’ve got to punch right through. You’ve got to fight to the end.”

She would never sit down to write jokes, she had insisted. “I don’t even have a desk at my house. My bathroom is like my office—I write on my bathroom-sink top.”

And comedy is not for the faint of heart: “Screw kindness,” she had said. “You have to tell the truth, that’s what comedy is all about.”

On how to deal with hecklers:

In the 2010 documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” Rivers is confronted with a heckler during one of her performances. She told Entertainment Weekly the best way to deal with such a situation is to “never include them in the act.” She continued:

“The audience came to see you, not them. By including them, one person is having a great time, and 3,999 people aren’t. So you cannot include them. You’ve got to slap them down hard and you’ve got to get them removed, because it’s going to ruin the evening for everybody. I don’t have a standard comeback line. The one in the movie is the probably the first one I’ve had in seven years. I was shocked!”

On how comedy has changed, and how she kept up:

“When I started out, you couldn’t even say you were pregnant onstage, and now it’s all about vaginas,” she told the Boston Globe in 2013.

Rivers was known for working nonstop, writing jokes and performing constantly. In a 2011 episode of “Louie,” Rivers starred as herself, counseling a downtrodden Louis CK about the life of a comic (before he, well, came on to her). “I wish I could tell you it gets better, but it doesn’t get better. You get better,” she said. “It sounds so silly. What we do, is a calling. We make people happy.”

In 2010, the now-late Roger Ebert reviewed “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” He wrote:

“She has the energy, stamina and aggression that a great stand-up needs. She assaults the audience. She pounds laughter out of us. If you’ve only seen her on television, you have no idea. I saw her in Vegas, and she had people weeping with laughter. I saw her at a memorial service in Toronto for a friend of hers, and she brought down the house. Was that wrong at a memorial service? Brian Linehan, her friend, wouldn’t have expected anything less, and she knew it. If you need devout solemnity, Joan Rivers is not your girl.”

On when not to laugh

Never, according to Rivers.

Her husband Edger Rosenberg committed suicide in 1987. Even at that time, comedy came to her: “If a joke comes to you, then that’s the time for humor,” Rivers said in 2009. “When my husband committed suicide, there was nothing funny running through my head. But by the next day, I was already starting with close friends to do terrible black humor.”

She told the Telegraph in 2010 that she uses humor when faced with tragedy, that “life is so difficult and I cope with it by making jokes about absolutely everything.” She recalled one of her tweets — “Hitler: like him or not, he was a great dancer.” She said, “Some people ask, how can you make a joke about that, or 9/11? I would have made jokes in concentration camps. You have two choices: laugh or die.”

Rivers, who was very close to her mother, recalled how she sat in the beauty salon the day of the funeral. “She always said to me: ‘Look good in front of the relatives when I die.’ I said to the guy doing my hair: ‘If you don’t make my hair look good you will be doing my mother’s by this afternoon.’ That’s how I get past everything, and I think it’s a wonderful mechanism to have.”

On her own death.

Nothing was off limits for Joan, even her own death.

“At my funeral, I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents,” she joked.

For decades, Rivers kept a needlepoint pillow in her library, embroidered with this phrase: “Don’t expect praise without envy until you’re dead.”

In 1986 — in the midst of a very public falling out with her former mentor Johnny Carson — Rivers thought about how her own obituary would read in an interview with The Post:

That raises the question of her own obituary. “Oh,” she replies gamely, “they’ll probably say I reflected life. That I spoke for women. That I was the first to come out in a man’s world and say, ‘Hey, we can say those things, too.’ I tell my husband Edgar Rosenberg , ‘You watch! It’ll all be there the day I die.’ ”

She pauses. “Edgar says, ‘Perhaps not!’ ”

Rivers gives one of her celebrated snorts and falls back, laughing.

Elahe Izadi is a general assignment national reporter for The Washington Post.
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