Joan Rivers: Lessons for Artists

As the tributes have poured in for the iconic Joan Rivers, the one word that struck me was “fearless.” Jimmy Fallon used the word to describe Rivers on his Tonight Show tribute.

Joan Rivers was a trailblazer, launching her career in standup comedy in Greenwich Village during a time when there were few female comedians. I recall watching Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller (another important figure who blazed the trail) perform on The Ed Sullivan Show back in the 1960s. Their comedy was different from the standard standup fare. They were edgy, irreverent, and self-deprecating.

Rivers’ breakthrough occurred when she appeared on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, which eventually led to a permanent guest host role. Later, Carson would end their friendship over her decision to host a new latenight show on Fox.

What I remember most about Rivers was her no-holes-barred style. She was fearless. Nothing was off-limits. She made the red carpet a must-see event with her quick, acerbic wit. Her fashion takedowns on the show Fashion Police skewered Hollywood’s biggest stars.

In the span of one month, we have lost two legendary figures in comedy, Rivers and Robin Williams. I recalled in reflecting on Rivers’ life a comment made in relation to Robin Williams. I couldn’t find the reference, so I will paraphrase. Basically the tribute centered on the premise that comedians must overcome fear (that word again). Fear is a natural emotion in the performing arts. What if I’m not good enough? Am I going to humiliate myself in public, in front of an audience? What if my jokes offend people? The tribute basically concluded that comedians and performers must have no fear. Fear is paralyzing. Performers of all types cannot be at their best if they let fear control them.

The same premise applies to writers. Are you afraid your subject matter is too edgy? Are you afraid you are going to offend people? Worse, do you fear you are not good enough? Are you afraid critics are going to publicly savage your work?

Joan Rivers conquered her fears. She was absolutely fearless. Writers can take a valuable lesson from her. RIP, Joan Rivers.


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6 responses to “Joan Rivers: Lessons for Artists

  1. Tina

    Yes, Joan Rivers was brave and very funny! She was also a talented business person and designer. I have some of her top-notch, highly collectible fashion jewelry, makeup, nail polish and even a rose spray fragrance.
    I believe that a person has to be first be afraid in order to be brave. A lot of performers must overcome stage fright and panic attacks. At least writers are not usually “on stage” and can create without an audience. (Book tours with readings are something else.)

  2. Her style of ‘being’ was something I always admired, whether I liked what she was saying or not. And fearless is exactly the right word. I have done stand-up, and all kinds of other onstage performances, and stand-up is without a doubt the scariest thing going– and it never gets less risky, because the crowd is different each time. She had amazing control of a crowd, even of a crowd that wanted to be against her; something we can definitely aspire to as artists.

    • Yes. I cannot even imagine doing standup. It takes an enormous amount of courage. She did have an ability to control the crowd, and that’s no small feat. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Tina

    As far as writing goes, yes, I think I have offended some people by the things I have written. But I cannot write vanilla cake with vanilla ice cream just to please others by being the least offensive.

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