Joan Rivers was a larger than life figure who broke boundaries in many areas, among which include being one of the first female comics who spoke audaciously about being a woman, and the first woman to host a late night talk show (and be fired from one). For me, though, she was more than that.
As a child, I always thought of Joan Rivers as an extended member of our family; she helped me become the woman I am. Joan Rivers changed my life, inspired me, and I still look up to her even years after she’s passed on. She allowed herself to be sassy, brash, and unforgettable, and her humor and honesty helped me deal with my own emotions and insecurities growing up.
Here are some of her most iconic jokes that had a huge personal impact on me. She once said, “I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.” I believe that was definitely true.
1. “My husband wanted to be cremated. I told him I’d scatter his ashes at Neiman Marcus — that way, I’d visit him every day.”
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Joan personified the modern Jewish American Princess, suggesting that money is power and that fashion is everything. This is particularly interesting considering she’d had financial insecurity multiple times in her life. Her second husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide soon after he and Joan were fired from The Today Show. She handled the loss profoundly, perhaps using the pain to build a multi-million-dollar brand. With this simple joke, she offers a teasing but honest reflection of loss.
When my father died in April of 2016, I thought of this joke. I think there is a lot of pressure to show your grief by visiting the grave, but Joan raised a point that grief is grief, regardless if you are standing before the tombstone or not.
2. “At my funeral, I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents.”
Loss is going to happen, death is going to happen. As we get older, we have to get more comfortable with the truth of the matter. Losing my father forced me to understand mortality. Joan might’ve been joking about what she wanted at her funeral, but it shows that she was growing more comfortable with the idea that it was going to happen one day.
“I was so ugly that my parents sent my picture to ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ — they sent it back and said, ‘We don’t believe it.’”
Repeatedly stated in interviews, Rivers spoke of the profound impact that being overweight throughout her childhood and adolescence had on her body image, which she struggled with throughout her life. We typically look at celebrities and assume they don’t have body issues the way we do. Joan, however, was honest that she felt ugly or that she had to be funny because she wasn’t worth looking at.
I, particularly, have suffered a lot because of low self-esteem, being disgusted with my body, and being worried that no one would want me. Joan understood.
“Education? I spit on education. No man is ever going to put his hand up your dress looking for a library card.”
Coming from a woman with a college degree from Barnard College with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and anthropology, this was definitely said in jest. A lot of Joan’s shtick was that men are stupid and only like big boobs. I think that she really valued education, and she said things like this because she figured that was why she wasn’t getting male attention. The words still ring true, though. Unfortunately, many men are going to go for a girl who is not as educated or smart as I am. Joan knew how to prepare me for disappointment and rejection.
3. “Never be afraid to laugh at yourself; after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”
Yes, in order to be a stand-up comic, you have to have a sense of humor. But there is a lot more to it than that. Joan was a pioneer for talking frankly about the struggles of being a woman and her own insecurities. She made a career out of poking fun at herself and being able to laugh. In my opinion, people who take themselves too seriously are really missing out.
I’ve been successful in my life because I know my shortcomings. I can look back on things I’ve done and cringe, but also find my foolish endeavors hilarious.
4. “I think anyone who’s perfectly happy isn’t particularly funny.”
Like Joan, I’ve always been the funny girl. I’ve learned to make light or to make jokes to smooth over uncomfortable situations. I understand that my role is to be the “funny girl.” Do “funny girls” get to be happy someday? I hope so. It seems like Joan Rivers ended up very happy.
5. “My love life is like a piece of Swiss cheese. Most of it’s missing, and what’s there stinks.”
We live in a culture that heavily suggests that you aren’t enough unless you are half of an “us.” I’ve always felt embarrassed that I didn’t have much to write home about when it came to my love life. Joan had two marriages, one that ended in annulment and another that ended in suicide. She was, by all accounts, proven to be a strong woman who didn’t need a man.
6. “The fashion magazines are suggesting that women wear clothes that are ‘age appropriate.’ For me that would be a shroud.”
Joan loved fashion. She built an empire with her designs of clothing and jewelry. And, of course, she shook up celebrity culture with her daughter, Melissa, when they became the first to ask celebrities who they were wearing on the red carpet. She might have been defined by fashion in many ways, but she defined her own fashion sense. Unlike others who said that women had to dress for their age, she dressed for herself. I always took this to mean that women should think for themselves and wear what makes them feel good rather than what’s “appropriate.”
7. “I’ve learned: When you get older, who cares? I don’t mince words, I don’t hold back. What are you gonna do to me? Fire me? It’s been done. Threaten to commit suicide? Done. Take away my show? Done! Not invite to me to the Vanity Fair party? I’ve never been invited! If I ever saw the invitation, I’d use it as toilet paper.”
I think this is a prime example of how strong Joan Rivers was as a person. She overcame a lot and it seemed to only make her fight back harder. The snark she’s known for came because she allowed herself to rise above things. She teaches all of us that we should be honest and say what we mean, particularly as we get older.
I’ve come to a place where I’ve started not caring much about how people perceive me and that confidence is definitely in part thanks to Joan.
8. “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.”
Some say that Joan Rivers was the ultimate Jewish American Princess who cared too much about wealth and fame. Maybe she was, but why’s that such a bad thing to aspire to? She was a self-made millionaire who appreciated the finer things because she deserved them. She inspired me to work hard, do well, and treat yourself because of it.
And, let’s be honest, while money may not be everything, it is really nice to have.