Serious About Comedy: What We Can Learn About Success from Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers photoI admired Joan Rivers. Yes, she was crude. Yes, she was rude. Yes, she had way too much plastic surgery. She was also a trailblazer and a hard working woman with much to teach us about life and business. I’ve watched her for years and saw the documentary of her life which gave an inside view of the woman behind the character. As the world pays tribute now in the days after her death, here are some things I learned from observing Joan Rivers that many of us can apply to our own businesses.

  1. She was a realist. She started doing stand-up because she wasn’t getting work as a serious actress. Once she tried comedy and realized that she could be successful there she became a famous comedian. Wonder what would have happened had she kept trying to chase her dream of dramatic acting?
  2. She was extremely hard working. Sure, making jokes looks easy but anyone who has ever tried to do standup knows that being judged on laughs-per-minute is not easy at all. Having watched the documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it’s easy to see that she was a workaholic who strived daily to stay booked and keep coming up with new material. Having new material consistently for 50+ years doesn’t just happen, I don’t care who you are! If you look her up on the Internet Movie Database IMDb you’ll find her resume shows 37 acting credits, 4 producer credits, 307 “self” (credits where she appears in productions as herself), 4 producer credits and 15 writer credits. She had a line of jewelry she sold on QVC and was author of over ten books. “Joan did a Q & A for her latest book and a full-hour comedy set in New York the day before she went into a coma,” according to comedian Kathy Griffin who spoke of her mentor on the Today show the day after her death. “Plus she was booked for 15 shows in the UK in October.” I’m exhausted just thinking about it all!
  3. She didn’t try to please everyone. You loved her or hated her. She didn’t change who she was to fit the mold of what ‘they’ wanted. She knew her strengths, found her audience and kept writing comedy and managing the business of getting booked. She was the butt of jokes, she was criticized and some folks hated her but she made friends with many of the celebrities she joked about because they ‘got it’ that she was doing comedy, not  a commentary on them as a person. Many stories have been told about her kindness to interviewers and people behind the scenes.
  4. She was unique. Not only was she a trailblazer as a woman doing standup; she was herself to the extreme. With a love for fashion and acting she made a character of herself. She added an acerbic wit to high-fashion and hobnobbing with Hollywood elite and royalty. With a nip and tuck to keep her looks, she was honest and open about it and even took it to the extreme. Then she made the jokes about herself that other comedians wish they’d thought of.
  5. She was the queen of reinvention. Not only did she keep tweaking the famous face. Joan Rivers kept working on her act and coming up with new ideas for TV shows. Over the years she had at least five shows of her own including The Late Show, The Joan Rivers Show, Joan’sFashion Police‘, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, and In Bed With Joan. She also appeared frequently on many others shows like The Tonight Show, Regis & Kelly, Saturday Night Live, TMZ, E! News and Entertainment Tonight. She worked the red carpet and originated the famous line, “Who are you wearing?” She appeared on and won Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” She didn’t come just for show. She was there to win. Looking at film clips from over the years it’s easy to see that she kept changing her look, her style and her work to keep it fresh and new over the years. I know one comedian who was telling jokes about his babies and diapers when his kids were well into their teens. Not Joan Rivers. She kept creating new material year after year.
  6. She overcame hardships. How many of us are devastated by loss of jobs, friends or family members? Despite public losses including her husband’s suicide followed by a difficult period with her daughter and being fired from various TV shows she kept coming back. Quit wasn’t in her vocabulary. “Life is so difficult-everybody’s been through something. But you laugh at it, it becomes smaller.” And that’s a quote she gave us, not just in words but in example.
  7. She understood her business. In the documentary mentioned above you can clearly see how driven she was to stay booked and keep making money. She pushed her agents and did whatever it took to keep working. She was obviously a workaholic but she also had a strong sense of responsibility to keep the people who worked for her employed so they could provide for her families.

Joan Rivers. Love her or hate her she was a unique trailblazing comedian the likes of whom we may never see again. If you want to learn more about her as a person, a business woman and how she kept reinventing her own success I highly recommend watching her documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. It’s a serious film about a unique woman who was in the business of comedy.

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