"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Thomas Jefferson

Joan Rivers' Life Lessons -- Can We Talk?

Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA Read Comments - 7
Publish Date: 
Thu, 09/25/2014


God knows Joan Rivers had much to atone for every Yom Kippur, considering her trenchant wit, off-color jokes, and celebrity takedowns—though sidesplitting.

Never deferential to fame and status, Rivers claimed, “I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.” Hence, Liz Taylor was “so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin” and “hamburgers on hotdogs,” and HBO-star Lena Dunham’s ever-present breasts “look like Michael J. Fox drew them and Stevie Wonder filled them in.”

Alas, the trailblazing performer can’t Think Again and repent this year. Known for resilience and career rebirths springing from fearlessness, a legendary work ethic and her “this-too-shall-pass” philosophy, Rivers has now passed. Yet in continuously reversing nosedives, Rivers’ life story – struggle, growth and renewal—is High Holiday sermon-worthy.

Rivers didn’t go to the woods like Henry David Thoreau to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” preferring her palatial apartment. But like Thoreau, she did “learn what [life] had to teach” and didn’t “practice resignation,” discovering when she came to die that she’d truly lived.  “I’m so, so lucky,” she proclaimed in her last interview. “I’m relevant. I’m funny. And I look OK.”

We lament Rivers’ premature exit from life’s stage. After all, refusing to be “Joan of AARP,” she’d just commanded a comedy stage before undergoing vocal chord surgery to repair her act’s instrument, causing the only setback her determination couldn’t overcome.

Rivers realized her death wish, dying peacefully in her sleep like Grandpa—not screaming like the others in his car—as she joked. At 81-years-old, the tireless comedian who claimed her body was falling so fast her gynecologist wore a hard hat, predicted nobody would say “how young!” upon her passing. “They’re going to say,” ‘She had A GREAT RIDE!’”

Indeed, a roller coaster ride with dramatic downturns, breathtaking heights, and a trajectory that careened past indignities and disappointments toward accomplishment and fulfillment.

“Comedy only comes from a place of tragedy or anger or being hurt,” Rivers believed, rendering her woes comedic fodder—husband Edgar Rosenberg’s suicide, daughter Melissa’s estrangement, discrimination, career failures, mentor Johnny Carson’s rejection, indebtedness, suicidal thoughts, and cosmetic-surgery scorn.

Nothing was off-limits and self-ridicule was her specialty. After Edgar’s suicide, she joked that his will requested daily visits. “So I had him cremated and scattered his ashes in Neiman Marcus. I never missed a day.” Making herself the punch line – “I’ve had more reconstruction than Baghdad” – she would’ve cracked cardiac arrest jokes, if alive.

More than wit and courage, Rivers had wisdom and self-awareness. She knew her life’s spark was inducing laughter, and in a novelty-manic era, she refashioned herself to sustain freshness and relevance. At the epicenter of popular culture—stand-up comedy, late-night then daytime television, hawking jewelry on QVC, critiquing red-carpet fashion—her comedic commentary cheered the world.

“To everything there is a season,” the Byrds sang (and the Bible posits) -- a time to get, lose, love, hate, laugh, cry, be born, die – because life is a journey, not a destination. Rivers journeyed “through any door that opened,” she boasted, confident “something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.”

Though my treasured friend recently succumbed to cancer, I know as a survivor that amid darkness and despair, there is light and hope, inspiring a more vigorous return to life. Long winters render summer more glorious because profound joy derives from knowing nothing lasts forever. That we’re never done experiencing, learning and growing – more from disappointments than successes—is a call-to-action.

In answering life’s calls, and making the most of herself – albeit with considerable plastic coating—Rivers wore her soul brightly, finally relinquishing it better and more burnished.  Joan cried a river after each setback, but then she built a showboat to float to happier times, cracking us up en route. Her life was a blessing for blessing us with her wit, and wisdom.

Still standing til the end—though with some osteoporosis, she quipped—Rivers embodied this ancient Talmudic advice:

“Get the most from each hour, each day and each age of your life. Then you can look forward with confidence and back without regret. Be yourself, but be your best self. Dare to be different, to follow your own star.

Enjoy what is beautiful. Believe that those you love, love you. Forget what you’ve done for your friends, and remember what they’ve done for you.

Disregard what the world owes you; concentrate on what you owe the world. When faced with a decision, make it as wisely as possible, then forget it. The moment of absolute certainty never arrives.

Blessed is the generation in which the old listen to the young; double-blessed is the generation in which the young listen to the old.”

Think Again—May every soul searcher’s life follow this path.


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Article brought tears to my

Article brought tears to my eyes...very blessed by the quote at the close.

How great of you to write a

How great of you to write a column on Joan Rivers.

I actually worked on The Tonight Show when Joan was our guest
host. I never knew her, and, in fact, never met her. Although
we talent coordinators (segment producers) worked directly
with Carson when he was there, everything involving Joan
went through her husband, Edgar. Edgar was the Svengali,
or maybe Tevye would be more appropriate.

It was clear at the time that Joan was a unique talent, and
a breakthrough for comediennes. She was also highly
intelligent, a Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard, a fact she
brought up whenever possible. She and Edgar were notoriously
cheap. They paid writers seven dollars a joke. Later in life,
Joan became a generous philanthropist.

The thing she feared more than anything, during the period
when she was a rising star, was poverty. She had, to the best
of my knowledge, never been poor. But she feared that all her
success would evaporate suddenly. I think it’s a fairly typical
Jewish fear. For her, it never materialized, although, as you
point out, she had many downs.

So, thank you for memorializing Joan. The description “one of a kind”
is overused, but, in her case, it’s accurate.

I did indeed enjoy your Joan

I did indeed enjoy your Joan Rivers piece, and not just because I gleaned from it a few classic Rivers lines that I hadn't heard before.

I always appreciate it when people do not shrink from applying the wisdom of their faith to subject matter that may appear to be incongruous, in this case the "profane" Rivers perhaps having her wellspring in The Talmud.

Our culture accords less "gravitas" to comedy than to tragedy, but some of the greatest tragedies -- the crucifixion of Jesus, for example -- are in fact divine comedies, whereby we are restored to wholeness. Put another way, Joan Rivers does me good!

And, of course, your piece on Climate Religion was spot-on.

Thanks, Melanie.

Joan Rivers had the

Joan Rivers had the wherewithal to magnificently craft a comedic line and then deliver it even more magnificently, if that was even possible. And it was. Can we tawk?

And she was the antithesis of political correctness (amen!) yet she was never ugly like, say, Bill Maher.

Oy vey, are we going to miss the tawk!

No doubt, Joan Rivers was

No doubt, Joan Rivers was funny, talented and successful. She worked tirelessly to be those things. She did not set back and "collect" on the freebies in life. She also had a deep love and appreciation for family and friends. You have honored a very fine person with your observations.

Thank you.

A very lovely column,

A very lovely column, Melanie.

I took the liberty, one again, of sending it to several of my friends. One in particular is my sister-in-law with whom we have not been close, but now she is terminal with lung cancer. She has welcomed my support and I send her things to occupy her mind with, other than her own demise. She really get a lot out of this column. Thank you!

Hope you have lovely High Holiday.

Peggy Noonan´s article on

Peggy Noonan´s article on Joan Rivers was outstanding. This was also nicely done and timely with the Jewish holidays we are now in.

R.I.P. Ms. Rivers and thank you for the laughs!

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