Joan Rivers undoubtedly knew the power of comedy and laughter. The title “Trailblazer” has been thrown around often since her passing when it comes to who she was as a career woman. And a trailblazer she was, committing herself to constructing a career based on pushing the envelope and never taking “No” for an answer. Fans and critics alike still admire her for this drive she had. When she made you cringe whenever she opened her mouth (and she did), she simply accepted that as part of her technique. Let’s face it- preferences in humor aren’t going to be universal, and no one knew this more than Rivers. She will forever be remembered as an outspoken woman who helped shatter the glass ceiling for those like her in her field. But her legacy and her life accomplishments involved more than just jokes, and she showed us all that successful careers involve a healthy balance of appeasing her audience in saying what they wanted to hear and opening their eyes to things they wouldn’t see from anyone else.
Whether or not you agreed with her comedy style or what she did in her spare time, she owned it. In fact, Rivers owned all of her behavior- something that was refreshing in a culture that seems to consistently put the blame on someone else. Directly and indirectly, Joan Rivers was a mentor to many, helping them navigate competitive and even uncharted territory. From being in the public eye, working as a philanthropist, to being an overall gay advocate, Joan did it all her way. When it comes to working with the LGBT community, Rivers was one of the first people to openly speak out about what the community was about and the struggles that it faced.
In one of her earliest roles, Rivers appeared opposite Barbra Streisand in Driftwood, a play in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. The two played a same-sex couple in the play, which required them to kiss, because the director couldn’t find a leading man.
“This was before [Streisand] was singing, before anything,” Rivers said in 2010. “I knew she was talented, but you never know what someone will be. She was a fabulous kisser, that’s what I knew.”
Rivers also talked a great deal about gay culture on her T.V. shows. When the drag queen documentary, Paris Is Burning, came out in 1990, Joan invited the movie’s cast to her talk show to discuss the culture. Looking and talking with people who were different never fazed her. This was the secret to Joan’s approachability: her natural ability to sympathize with those who marched to the beat of their own drum.
Rivers was also a proud supporter of marriage equality. In 2012, prior to President Obama’s historic announcement of endorsing the controversial issue, she criticized him and other politicians for often flip-flopping on the subject.
“It is outrageous. The politicians are all such ass-kissers,” she said. “No one is saying the truth. They are saying what they think people want to hear.”
As an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, Rivers herself officiated at least two same-sex weddings in New York State. In 2014, Rivers even held a spur-of-the-moment wedding after meeting a gay couple at one of her book signings in New York City.
“Every wedding I officiate has a cover charge and a two-drink minimum,” she joked at the time.
Rivers prided herself on her relationship with the LGBT community: “My gay fans have been wonderful from day one,” she said in 2014. “I remember when I was working at the Duplex in Greenwich Village in New York at the beginning of my career and the only ones who would laugh at my jokes were the gay guys. I think if I had started out in straight clubs and bars I never would’ve gotten anywhere.”
“Even today,” she said, “when I’m on tour I always know if I get eight gay men in the front row it’s going to be a great show. Maybe it’s just me and I know they’re going to laugh at what I’d laugh at, but when my gays are in the audience it’s always a good time.”
Her blunt style and approachability is what made her such a fabulous gay icon. As being the self-proclaimed “queen of the gays,” she captured her audience with her blunt humor and sharp tongue, but it was her heart that went out for those struggling in the gay community.
For years, Rivers served on the board of God’s Love We Deliver, a New York-based charity that provides meals to AIDS patients and others who are too sick to shop or cook for themselves. She had been a part of the organization for more than 20 years, starting off her volunteer work there when the AIDS crisis was at its peak. She always made a point to deliver meals with her family on Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as when she could while balancing her career obligations.
“Delivering meals is a cleansing moment,” she said. She went on to say that she does it purely for selfish reasons in order to put her head back where it needs to be.
Her appearance on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice in 2009 showed us all how strong she can be when her head is in the right place. She raised more than $100,000 for God’s Love We Deliver while doing tasks on the show. She ended up winning the competition, bringing in another $250,000 for the organization. The last of Rivers’ television appearances will air on in the upcoming season of Celebrity Apprentice, where she appears as one of Donald Trump’s boardroom advisers.
Most recently, Rivers was well known for hosting the E! Television show, Fashion Police, alongside the likes of Kelly Osborne, George Kotsiopoulos and Giuliana Rancic. Up until the time of her death, Rivers was still working with no hint of slowing down. The Vital VOICE was able to talk with both Kelly Osborne and George Kotsiopoulos in 2014, and both of them weighed in on working with Joan, her impromptu hosting style and her over-the-top sense of humor.
“I mean, you have to have an outline with any show you’re doing,” Osborne said. “A lot of the time there is stuff that’s prewritten but that’s never what they end up using [in the final cut]- it’s the stuff that just comes flying out [Rivers’] mouth. You just think, ‘Oh my god!’”
Osborne laughed a lot when talking about Joan, and spoke of her fondly. The two seemed to be quite close both on camera and off, but the times while filming when Rivers’ unfiltered boldness showed through were the times that Osborne was truly inspired by her.
“The thing is, I know Joan so well that I know it’s a joke,” Osborne continued. “I can’t find something offensive that is supposed to be a joke. She’s the only woman in the world who can get away with saying what she says. Her bravery just blows my mind.”
George Kotsiopoulos also spoke out in July 2014 about some of his most memorable moments he had with Joan, and her comedic approach to news that many others would address in a more serious light or be afraid to even address at all.
“Anytime [Joan] says a joke about someone who died, those are more memorable,” George said. “I don’t even remember the jokes, we always just remember like, ‘Is this too soon?’ Whitney Houston, Paul Walker- Who else has died recently? Any of those people. You’re literally just sitting there thinking like, ‘Holy shit. Wait a minute. This is funny, but is it too soon? This is too soon! This is too soon!’ I can’t remember the specifics because, my gosh, there’s just so many of them. She’s hilarious.”
Osborne continued her September 2014 interview with words that seemed appropriate for how Joan would want to be remembered and spoken of following her untimely death.
“For me, we hate it when someone dies because it’s one of those things where we’re like ‘Oh no, they’re not even buried yet!’” Osborne says. “It’s become one of those running things. She only does it because she knows it winds us up. We’ll sit there, and there are things that Joan says and because of what I stand for I want to piss myself laughing- but I cover my face because I’m shocked by what she says, but I can’t be seen pissing myself laughing at that! That’s why we all play different roles on the show.”
“We will literally be like, ‘No, no, no. Someone died and we shoot Fashion Police tomorrow. God only knows what Joan is going to say!’” Osborne continued. “But she does it just to fuck with us because she knows, and she loves winding people up!”
After Rivers’ passing in September, Melissa, her only child, was named the executor of the $150 million trust that was to be delegated to other family members. Although it’s not clear how the money will be divvied up, Rivers did insist that God’s Love We Deliver get a portion, along with the Jewish Guild for the Blind, Guide Dogs for the Blind in California, the Simon Wisenthal Center, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Jewish Home and Hospital Foundation.
“My mother was fearless,” Melissa Rivers said. “And I don’t mean she didn’t have any fears, I mean that even though she was only 5’2”, she stood tall and walked through it. And that’s what made her such a brilliant performer. She was willing to say what others were thinking and too frightened to admit.”
Fearless and brilliant are two things Joan Rivers certainly was. Her daughter, with the help of Joan’s colleagues, sums up her legacy best with these adjectives, while gently reminding us all that it’s never too soon to laugh. V
WRITTEN BY KEVIN SCHMIDT