I would not want to live if I could not perform. It's in my will. I am not to be revived unless I can do an hour of stand-up.
Joan Rivers has been a hero to me since I started my journey in stand-up comedy back in 1997. I'm sorry to say "journey." I don't mean to sound like I'm a guest who's overly proud of herself on an episode of Oprah's Master Class. But stand-up is an actual journey because it can take you places—literally places that exist on maps and figuratively places in your head that make you wonder,
Why the hell am I doing this? Am I even funny? Why aren't things going better for me? I'm funnier than him/her/it/everyone. Maybe I should quit. Why doesn't everyone else quit and make room for me? If you're smart you'll also journey to therapy. Neurosis can always be mined for laughs as long as the audience is confident that the performer is not currently having a nervous breakdown on stage.
Joan's first memoir, Enter Talking, was my bible. I carried it around with me in my purse when I was a lowly temp pounding the pavement in New York City. (That isn't an expression—I used to wear very heavy John Fluevog brand Mary Jane heels.) Joan became a stand-up in her twenties and by her midthirties she still hadn't found the big break that her peers Woody Allen and Bill Cosby had. She also hadn't married her stepdaughter or allegedly drugged and raped countless women—which illustrates my theory that if you're going to be jealous of people, you have to be willing to trade places with the ENTIRETY of who they are, their whole life, and not just their success. Joan may not have been making millions as America's favorite TV dad but she also wasn't an (alleged) rapist, so life wasn't all bad. She taught me to never compare and despair and to never fucking stop doing what you love. At the very least you'll drop dead having done what fulfilled you.
Joan's big break came on her first appearance on Johnny Carson in 1965—an appearance that was hard fought. She had been rejected by the show many times—not by Johnny directly but by the gatekeepers, the talent bookers on The Tonight Show. That's another lesson I learned from Joan. There will always be people in life who tell you no and sometimes it's because they have nothing else to do that day except exert their power, and if you let their no stop you, you've just validated their opinion of you as worth more than your own.
I admired Joan for being one of the only stand-up comedians who also happened to be a woman at a time when women weren't supposed to be doing men's jobs, least of all comedy. Women weren't supposed to be funny. Women weren't supposed to speak their truth about how hard it is to be pregnant and feel sexy. Women weren't supposed to talk about abortion, being single, sex with their husbands—not even in private, let alone on television. Also, I say "stand-up who also happened to be a woman" because I don't believe in saying "female comedian." A comedian is a comedian is a comedian. "Female" is not a type of comedy. You can say that someone is a one-liner comic, a storyteller, a prop comic, or a shitty comic, but when you write "female" it's implied that male is what a comic really is and a female comic is a lesser version. It also implies that females only talk about "one thing"—being female, and that men, just regular old comedians, discuss more important, universal things. You know, like their dicks.
I held Joan's story in my heart when I saw many of my peers and even men who started comedy after I did get their own TV shows or start selling out comedy shows on the road while I still struggled to get noticed. Joan was funny, wildly original, indefatigable, and she couldn't get noticed for over a decade? Maybe, just maybe, Joan's story was my story too. It gave me hope. And hope is what you live on when you're young and broke. That and free ketchup packets.
On a particularly down day when I was working as a temp at
DKNY I got reprimanded by my fabulous gay boss for what he called a "fashion sin"—I was wearing ankle socks with Capri pants and flats. "Honey, no socks. Ever. I don't care if it's negative ten degrees. Socks make people here sad."
I worried about the people working at the DKNY corporate office if ankle socks were affecting their serotonin levels. Did they read the newspapers? (Page Six doesn't count.)
I took my socked feet on a walk during my lunch hour. I had also been told that bringing my own lunch every day made everyone sad (someone please get some Zoloft over to DKNY headquarters in Mid-town stat). So that I didn't accidentally spark chain-reaction suicides in the office, I walked up and down Fifth Avenue eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Coming toward me—on what was normally a bustling sidewalk but at this moment seemed to be occupied only by us two—was Joan Rivers. I stared at her, letting her pass. She had no idea she had just brushed by a young comedian who idolized her and had a copy of Enter Talking in her purse—a purse that probably made everyone at DKNY utterly despondent. I wanted to stop Joan and ask her for advice. But I already knew—there is no advice. She can't give me some fast-track option. That doesn't exist. The advice? The advice is stop asking for advice and just keep fucking doing it, open mic after open mic, and then when you get better at it—Indian casino after Indian casino.
Fifteen years later I'm sitting with Joan Rivers and our mutual agent at lunch somewhere on Fifth Avenue. We've had two glasses of wine and she's holding my hand as I tell her the story of walking by her—the lowly temp eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—and now I'm eating chopped salad with her as she willingly gives me advice on how to continue in this business and in life as a divorced woman. We both got misty-eyed about how much our work means to us. She joked, "You were right not to stop me that day fifteen years ago, bitch. Those socks sound awful."
The last time I saw Joan we were performing together at a theater called Largo in Los Angeles in the summer of 2014. She was kind enough to agree to share a bill with me and let me keep all of the money. I bought brand-new wineglasses and a bottle of Cakebread chardonnay for us to toast with backstage and to thank her. She rehearsed her opening with the pianist. She made notes backstage up until she went out there to perform. When the lights dimmed and the crowd roared, ready to greet her fabulousness, she said to me, "Well, you know what Ethel Merman said, 'If they could do what we do they'd be backstage ready to go on and we would be in the seats.' " I said, "That's great. Is that your mantra now?" She said, "No, that's Ethel's mantra. I'm always nervous and insecure before I go on." And she took her gum out of her mouth, stuck it to the wall, and walked toward the stage in her sequined jacket. She giggled to herself, shook her head a little, and said, "It's time."
At Joan's funeral I watched Howard Stern make a speech that started with "Joan Rivers had the driest vagina" and ended with him choking back tears. I thought about how Joan never stopped, until life had to forcibly stop her. I thought of her coming up in the repressed 1960s with only Lenny Bruce and gay audiences on her side. She had it a lot harder than I do when the only thing that truly annoys me is people asking, "So what's it like being a woman in comedy?" (My answer? "I don't know, I've never been a man in comedy.") Hey, at least people are asking questions, trying to understand why it's so hard for some people to accept women as funny. But I don't feel like teaching. I just want to make jokes. And I learned from Joan that making jokes is the best way to teach and to heal.
I always think about what Joan once said to me when I told her a story about my orthodontist, who told me that I needed to settle down and intimated that my life wasn't "real." She said, "Your life is a gift and you know better than to waste it with your fingers inside of people's mouths."
Adapted from the book I Know What I'm Doing – And Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches From a Life Under Construction by Jen Kirkman. Copyright © 2016 by Block of Cheese, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.