As a budding comic growing up in New Jersey, Judy Gold related to, adored Joan Rivers
She says Rivers a role model to female comics, worked very hard, was fearless
She says Rivers was a nurturing colleague, gave her advice on mothering, work
Gold: Rivers not comfortable being told how beloved she was. But she was
Editor’s Note: Judy Gold is a stand-up comic, writer and winner of two Emmy Awards.
When I was a little girl, I watched a lot of TV. I loved sitcoms and had a special love for talk and variety shows. I loved it whenTotie Fields, Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller came on, but there was no one who affected me like Joan Rivers. Like every other misfit Jewish girl growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I may have adored Barbra, but I could relate to Joan.
She was a perfect stand-up comic. Self-deprecating without being self-deprecating. Her jokes were flawless. And she was always the smartest person in the room. Every time she came on TV, my mother would say, “You know she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard … Ivy League.” (My mother was obsessed with Jewish celebrities, and Ivy League graduates). But the best part of Joan was how she made me laugh. And I mean belly laugh. And if you know a comic, you know that we don’t laugh easily.
Joan Rivers was a role model to comics everywhere, but especially to women. She got the first laugh and the last laugh. I learned from this. When the kids in school taunted me because of the way I looked (6-foot-2 at 13), my mother advised me to act like I couldn’t hear them. I would come up with insults and retorts and play them out in my head, but those insults never came out of my mouth. I censored myself, something Joan had the courage to never do. Humor is the best way to get your point across and nobody got their point across better than Joan.
This tiny little loud-mouthed Jewish woman was my hero. When Joan Rivers walked through the curtain on “The Tonight Show,” nobody in my house was allowed to utter a sound. Her gait was full of pep and purpose and her voice unmatched. Her first appearance was in 1965, when I was 3. Johnny Carson called her over to the couch and whispered, “You’re going to be a star.” She looked behind her to see if he was talking to someone else.
She never stopped. She kept working in clubs, opening for other celebrities, writing jokes and books, recording albums, and being a mother – and eventually a single mother. She never revealed her pain and struggles, she just kept on working – making other people laugh.
We all know showbiz isn’t easy, but being a comic – especially being a female comic – can be quite punishing. Whenever it got rough enough for me to wonder, “Is this really worth it?” I immediately thought about Joan. It was she who made me never, ever give up.
She was sometimes vilified for saying exactly what she thought (something no one in our business had ever done before or has done since). Everything and everyone was fair game. She found humor in the most tragic, forlorn and traumatic circumstances.
Yes, she offended lots of people, but she laughed at herself first. She knew what you were thinking and trumped you with a joke every time. It’s one thing to be able to say the thing everyone else wishes they could think of saying, but it’s another thing to say it with aplomb, even as you know you’re opening yourself up to recrimination. Whether it was her plastic surgery, her age or her weight, she beat you to it.
When I first met Joan, on this silly shopping show she was doing, I was so nervous. But she put me right at ease with her warmth and humility. Whenever I saw her after that, she would bestow loving, motherly, sage advice upon me.
After my first son was born, I told her I was worried that I was screwing up his sleep because he would always wake up in the middle of the night when I got home from a gig and we would end up hanging out until he fell back asleep. Said Joan: “Who cares! The most important thing is not what time it is when you spend time with your child - It’s that you SPEND time with your child.”
I told her once: “I hope you know all you have done for female comics. We wouldn’t be here without you.” “Oh baloney!! I did nothing,” she replied. “You are funny. That’s all that matters – and that you don’t let anyone take your hard-earned money!! Do everything yourself!” She would never listen to how great she was, but she would always make you feel like a million bucks.
Joan Rivers broke down barriers, advocated for free speech, and never apologized for who she was. Everyone knew how much she loved her daughter and her grandson. She loved the people she worked with. She loved her fans. She loved her friends. But just like every other Jewish mother, she was uncomfortable hearing about how much she was loved.
A few weeks ago, I emailed her and asked if her ears were burning because fellow stand-up Lynne Koplitz and I were up at the Montreal Comedy Festival talking with some other comics about how much we loved her and how good she was to us. She emailed back, “Adore you both. XXX”
She was so much more than a simple girl with a dream. She gave so many funny little misfit girls permission to dream. Thank you doesn’t seem nearly enough. This is a really hard one.