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Tell The Truth, Don’t Surrender And Other Advice From My Mentor, Joan Rivers

It’s weird to be sad about a celebrity dying. Outside of how they do their jobs, we haven’t a clue as to whether they’re cool people or not. But I’m sad about Joan Rivers’ death because in the back of my mind, I selfishly thought I’d somehow meet her one day and she’d give me amazing career advice that would make my endeavors more of a success. Now, there are plenty of women who aren’t famous who can (and I hope, will) provide this kind of wisdom in my life.  But I’m still sad about Rivers and the mentorship that never was.

And then, I discovered an essay Rivers wrote for The Hollywood Reporter in 2012, in which she talks about being fired from a job and losing her own mentor of sorts. I dare you to read it. Because when I do, just like that, Rivers is mentoring me–sharing how she created space and an astounding career for herself, despite the zeitgeist and bizarre, psychologically-layered interpersonal relationships with mentors and colleagues when working in a male-dominated field.

She talks about the state of comedy when she began performing (and when the guys in her profession were simply spitting out formulaic jokes about their useless wives). She shares about fighting her way through failure, writing:

“I was brought up seven times to the Carson show — interviewed and auditioned seven times by seven different people, and they rejected me, each time, over a period of three years.”

She became a Tonight Show staple; the two developed tremendous rapport and affection:

When Rivers was offered her own show, Carson quit speaking to her. Was it because he was threatened by her success? She noticed that Carson didn’t shun male comedians when they rose in the ranks. Joan said,

“I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him. I know this sounds very warped. But I don’t understand otherwise what was going on. For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But I think it was a question of, ‘I found you, and you’re my property.’ He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him.”

No matter what job we choose, women are awarded the challenge of executing that job well, and given the bonus of navigating the rarely-recognized undercurrent that comes with being a woman–that of contending madonna, whore and the little woman stigmas. Rivers happened to navigate this in a very public way with King of Late Night, Johnny Carson.

Think for a minute about how PC celebs are in the media. No one is honest because they don’t want what they say publicly to come back and bite them in the ass. And a reason why Rivers particularly resonated with me is, she was honest when performing. She wrote:

“From the beginning, and to this day, I would never tell a lie onstage. So now I walk out, I go, “I’m so happy to see you,” and I really truly am so happy to see them. The one thing I brought to this business is speaking the absolute truth. Say only what you really feel about the subject. And that’s too bad if they don’t like it. That’s what comedy is. It’s you telling the truth as you see it.”

And even though, in this essay, she drops truth bombs for women in comedy, what she really offers is sound advice for women in any career:

“My advice to women comedians is: First of all, don’t worry about the money. Love the process. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Louis C.K. started hitting in his 40s; he’d been doing it for 20 years. And don’t settle. I don’t want to ever hear, “It’s good enough.” Then it’s not good enough. Don’t ever underestimate your audience. They can tell when it isn’t true. Also: Ignore your competition. A Mafia guy in Vegas gave me this advice: “Run your own race, put on your blinders.” Don’t worry about how others are doing. Something better will come.

Ignore aging: Comedy is the one place it doesn’t matter. It matters in singing because the voice goes. It matters certainly in acting because you’re no longer the sexpot. But in comedy, if you can tell a joke, they will gather around your deathbed. If you’re funny, you’re funny. Isn’t that wonderful?

If there is a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do. It is my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That is my rush. I get it nowhere else.”

I may have never gotten my one-on-one with Joan Rivers, but with pieces like this, the truth-telling feminist is speaking directly to us all. Try re-reading the above, this time swapping out “women comedians” for your name. I consider it some of the best advice Joan ever told me.

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