The most insidious fact about the death of Joan Rivers may be that at up until the very moment she passed may have been her most productive and hilarious in her incredible life.
There’s so much to say about Joan Rivers I frankly don’t even know where to begin. About two months before her passing on September 4—my birthday—I decided I was going to write about Rivers for a lot of reasons, but mostly about how her take-no-prisoners, unapologetic ferocity she’s always had on stage had been increasingly evident off stage. I was fascinated as a life-long Rivers fan (she referred to her most ardent followers as “Joan Rangers”) how the 81-year-old comedy legend was navigating this magical moment in her incredible life—so in control, so indefatigable, so alive.
Everywhere you turned there was Rivers: Hosting her aggressively hilarious show, Fashion Police; promoting her tenth book, The New York Times bestseller Diary Of A Mad Diva; on her popular and intimate Web interview show, In Bed With Joan, on QVC selling her mega-successful jewelry, fashion and makeup lines; but, deeply troubling, Rivers had also become something of a regular presence on TMZ, the paparazzi gotcha! website, where Rivers had been giving shockingly indelicate, raw, off-the-cuff assessments of current, no-win, hot-button issues (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defending Alec Baldwin’s homophobic slurs) and I held my breath truly scared that my beloved Rivers was skating perilously close to getting “Paula Deened” if she continued down this unfortunate soundbite road. For the first time ever, I wanted—I implored—Joan Rivers to zip it. And that was what I was going to write about. Then, as we know, she paid a visit to a Manhattan medical facility and never came back to us.
I was actually on Twitter when I first saw that horrible alert stating that Rivers had been rushed to Mt. Sinai Hospital in cardiac arrest. I literally stopped breathing. Even as I read the thousands of hopeful prayers, messages and scarce updates on her condition, in my heart I knew the Joan Rivers who reverberated so presently in the very depth of my soul was lost to us forever. When the global outpouring reached a crescendo on the news that, yes, in fact, Rivers had died peacefully surrounded by her two great loves, daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper, the only message I read that made me cry from my semi-frozen state of shock was fellow fearless comic Sarah Silverman’s perfect three-word tribute: “She wasn’t done.” She’s right, damn it. Joan Rivers so wasn’t done.
It’s almost unimaginable a world without Joan Rivers in it. That’s something I never had to encounter.
I first saw Joan Rivers perform at the beautiful Saenger Theatre in New Orleans in 1983 while I was a student at Tulane University. I had never experienced anything quite like it. From my seventh row seat I witnessed a miracle—Rivers was a galvanized tsunami of fearless comedy: Elizabeth Taylor is so fat that she stands in front of the microwave and yells ‘HURRY!’; Prince Charles is so upset at Princess Diana because HE wants to be the next queen of England!; If you marry for love you’re stupid, stupid, stupid—men don’t want brains, when a man feels up a woman’s dress he’s not looking for a library card! And on and on it went like this for two hours. She was ridiculously, relentlessly, side-splittingly funny and singularly unforgettable. I fell deeply in love with Joan Rivers that night. How could I not? And I wasn’t alone.
A few years later while working at Esquire magazine, my first job after graduating, I watched sadly as FOX cancelled Rivers’ late night show only seven months after its debut. I sent Rivers a short, handwritten note (remember those?) letting her know how much I loved her and reminded her to keep her chin up. Not two weeks later, I received—on personalized pink stationery, no less—a beautiful, funny, heartfelt response from Rivers thanking me for taking the time to reach out. I still have that letter framed along with my most precious possessions. That Joan Rivers had real class.
My can’t-miss weekly guiltiest of pleasures was watching Rivers mercilessly skewer her favorite celebrity targets Gwyneth Paltrow, John Travolta and the Kardashians on Fashion Police. I mean, seriously, can we talk? From that E! perch the always stylish Rivers mischievously got away with saying the most jaw-dropping, saltiest, guffaw-inducing barbs on American television and I loved every second of it. Joan Rivers was, up until the very end, right at the top of her game—sharper than a tack. And she wasn’t done. Damn it.
I think I understood why Rivers recoiled a bit at the perpetual tags everyone tried to pin on her: “pioneer,” “living legend,” “icon.” Though she was certainly all of those things, to Rivers those labels belonged to people whose best days were behind them and she dared you to not call her current or relevant. This tireless dynamo was still burning up Twitter and Instagram right up until a few hours before her death. Not many pioneers would’ve even bothered with social media. Joan Rivers owned social media. That’s current. That’s today. She wasn’t done. Damn it, Joan Rivers wasn’t done.