Earlier this month, at the age of 81, Joan Rivers passed away. I first became familiar with Rivers in the 1970s, during my high school years. I was a fan of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and Rivers was selected by Carson to fill in for him whenever he was gone from his television show. Back then, there were only two female comedians who had any notoriety: Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers.
Although Diller came across as a wacky funny girl, Rivers was a blunt, quick-witted, sassy, college-educated Jewish girl from upstate New York who always told it like it was.
At a marketing conference that I attended a few years ago, Rivers was featured as the keynote speaker. At that time, Rivers was in her late 70s. She didn’t have to work, yet she showed up at the conference and, with energy and enthusiasm, told the audience about her long career as a comedian.
At one point, Rivers talked about her husband’s suicide and the aftermath, which turned out to be the lowest point in her life. She said that prior to his death, her husband was her business manager and took care of their finances and investments. After her husband died, Rivers discovered that because of the reckless way in which he handled their money, she was broke.
At the time of her husband’s death, Rivers was 54 years old. She had trouble finding work because no one wanted to hire a female entertainer whose husband had committed suicide. It was as though a black cloud followed her wherever she went.
She returned to Hollywood Squares, a television show that she had appeared on in her younger years, a show that featured has-been celebrities who were past their prime. She returned to the basics and started performing again at small-town venues. It took her several years to rebuild her career. Because of what she had been through, she refused to trust any agent or lawyer and insisted on reading the fine print of every contract that was placed in front of her to sign.
Rivers was able to reinvent herself and developed an entirely new following among the customers of Home Shopping Network where she sold her own line of jewelry; among business people who watched her crush her competitors on Donald Trump’s television show Celebrity Apprentice; and among the younger generation who watched her on E!: Entertainment Television.
No one would have blamed her if she had given up and faded away after her husband’s death. But she refused to surrender. Like any champion, she ignored all the negative feedback she was receiving and continued to plow forward, one day at a time.
After listening to what Joan Rivers had to say at the conference, I had mixed feelings. I couldn’t help but respect her for her tenacity, work ethic, and her ability to overcome every obstacle that she encountered. But at that same time, I was angry at her. Besides telling her story, she told jokes that were crude and vulgar. It didn’t bother her that there were young teenagers in the audience.
There are lessons we can and should learn from people who are able to move beyond tragedy and rise above what would be insurmountable problems to most people. Joan Rivers was one of those people. It wasn’t her talents that helped her to overcome her difficulties and achieve a new level of success — it was her ability to control her thoughts and continually convince herself that her problems were behind her and the best was yet to come.
Here are a couple of quotes from Rivers that reflect her attitude about life:
• “I wake up in the morning and if nobody is standing over me doing a eulogy, it’s a good day.”
• “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is God’s gift. That’s why we call it the present.”
My favorite Joan Rivers quote is the following: “When people hate me, that’s good. They know I’m there.”
There’s a lot of wisdom packed into those three quotes. It really didn’t matter to Joan Rivers if she had a bad day, week, month, or year. As long as she woke up in the morning, she believed it was going to be a good day. And if, on any given day, someone criticized her or expressed hatred toward her, that was a good thing because at least they knew she stood for something.
If you’re a devout Catholic who strives every day to live your faith and profess it to others, you know what it’s like to be criticized and hated. Christ warned us that if we follow Him we will be hated. Unfortunately, most of us recoil and disappear into the woodwork when we are confronted with criticism and hatred. Instead of reacting that way, we should adopt the Joan Rivers approach and say to ourselves: That’s good that they hate me. At least they know I’m here and that I stand up for my faith.
There’s one more thing I want to point out about Rivers that we can all learn from. She was always in performance mode — engaged, enthusiastic, and energetic. She was a force to be reckoned with. I don’t think it was an act. To her, it was natural to be “on” every time she was in the presence of others. That’s how she was able to exercise so much influence over the people she came into contact with.
There were a couple of occasions earlier this year when I saw video clips of her being stopped and questioned by reporters on the street and at the airport. When the reporters stuck their microphones in her face, she said what was on her mind without any fear of what they or the public might think of her. She spoke with confidence and authority. You could tell from her attitude and her demeanor that she loved life and believed in what she was saying.
Do you love life? Do you view each new day as a gift from God? Do you wake up dreading what lies ahead or are you excited about what you’re going to accomplish during the day?
We should all be grateful for the opportunity to learn from people like Joan Rivers. May she rest in peace.