How Joan Rivers Changed My Life

joan rivers
Buzz, Heartbreak

Getting to work with Joan Rivers was one of the most important experiences of my life so far.

I got the call exactly one year ago today. Exactly. To the day. On September 4, 2013, I was asked to appear in an episode of Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, shooting in a few days. I would have to perform some over-the-top spoken word poetry at a funeral ... for a dog. Joan's dog. Joan Rivers' dog, Max. Of course I said yes. Who says no to Joan Rivers?

Since over-the-top is kind of my specialty, I couldn't wait to prepare the the poem I'd be performing. I knew I would nail the gig and I was hoping this opportunity would be the one that finally brought my career to the next level. My name has been bandied around for years now as someone who is reliable in advance (or in a pinch) to hit a grand slam on a funny bit part or cameo, but I don't want to toil in obscurity anymore. I've wanted to work in television full time since kindergarten. I don't have many memories from that age, but I will never forget the day I wore my sunglasses to school. I'm not sure why, but I had them on in the cafeteria in the middle of the day, and one of the teachers saw me. Instead of yelling at me or telling me to take them off because I was being silly, she giggled and grinned. "Ooh, you look like a movie star," she beamed, getting down to me at my level. From that moment on, I was hooked. If looking like a movie star meant being seen and making people happy, that's what I wanted to do. Somewhere along the way in elementary school, I decided I'd focus on television stardom instead. The big screen is exciting, yes, but the small screen is where you reach people in their living rooms, in their homes and in their hearts.

When I arrived at the gig, I was nervous. Not because I was scared to meet Joan or because I was worried about doing a good job, but because I knew this was going to be one of the really important days of my life. This was going to be the day my life changed. This was the day I was going to meet and work with Joan Rivers, and she was going to love me, and after that, who knows? Certainly whatever came next was going to be better than whatever had come before.

When I arrived, I chatted with the other guests until finally Joan walked in the room. In spite of her grief at the loss of her dog, she was glowing. I marveled at her fierceness while watching her speak. Joan was a tiny peanut of a broad (as you can see from our photo together). I'm only 5'5", and I'm sure I could have picked her up with one arm. Standing in her presence I realized the beauty of fragility and strength co-existing the way they did in her. There she was, a physically frail 80-year-old woman with a face and balls of steel. I was awe-struck by her in the best possible way.

The funeral commenced, and my poetry reading was scheduled toward the end. I was seated next to Lynne Koplitz, a comedian and friend of Joan's, who is a regular on the show. When I got up to walk to the podium, I tripped over Lynne's dog's leash (because of course dogs were invited to a dog funeral! I mean, otherwise it wouldn't make any sense!) In real life, I might have felt stupid for tripping - as I so often do - but in the comedic world of facepalms and pratfals, it felt like a good omen. I wish I was brilliant enough to say it was deliberate, but alas, I simply don't know how to use my feet.

I got to the dais and read the poem with all the gusto the tender occasion deserved. The piece ended with me barking in salute, and when I howled my final "woof!" everyone in the room started laughing, including (and especially) Joan. She stood up and greeted me, and said, "Oh my God, you're hysterical! Hysterical." It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and as I'm sure you can imagine, completely surreal. Was Joan Rivers actually calling me hysterical? It was exactly what I hoped it would be and yet impossible at the same time. I was just some kindergarten kid wearing sunglasses indoors, not a grown adult who could make Joan Rivers laugh.

Lynne Koplitz piped up and told Joan, "She's a comedian, too, you know," and Joan said, "Ya think?!" I'm laughing out loud right now seeing her in my mind's eye, making the screwface she was famous for as she said it. "Ya think?! I know! Wonderful," she said, happy I helped her make great TV. I learned that day that showbiz was not only in Joan's blood, it WAS Joan's blood, and she lived to throw out zinger after zinger after zinger. Everyone who watched the documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," knows that Joan had card catalogs full of one-liners, because she was a joke machine. A powerful one at that, who could defend any of her work, no matter how many people thought she was mean. In her documentary, she forcefully confronts a heckler who tried to shame her for making a joke about the deaf, and it is truly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. She shouts:

"Oh, you stupid ass. Let me tell you what comedy is about. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot. My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a bitch. Don't tell me. And just in case you can hear me in the hallway, I lived for nine years with a man with one leg, OK you asshole? And we're gonna talk about what it's like to have a man with one leg who lost it in World War II and then went back to get it, 'cause that's fuckin' littering."

Joan knew she had plenty of critics who thought her biting brand of celebrity critique crossed the line of decency, but she always felt secure in her humor, knowing that she was speaking from a place of shared pain. That's something I not only understand in a deeply personal way, but that I respect and admire. Joan said people who misunderstood her celebrity humor had probably never seen her live show, because on stage self-depreciation was the main ingredient of her act. After we filmed her reality show together, Joan invited me to be her guest at the Laurie Beechman theatre, where she performed for years in New York. Her live show was hilarious. She did, in fact, do jokes about being in a relationship with a man with one leg, and they were so funny, as were her bits about her sagging lady bits. I will forever picture in my mind tiny Joan, dripping in brown "diamonds," wearing a floor-length, jaguar-print caftan, yelling about her vagina being stuck to the floor. It is one of my top comedy memories out of a million great memories from thousands of live shows I've been at and on over the years, and the fact that I was watching it while sitting next to Stacy London, who I'd brought as my plus one after meeting her a few weeks before, indelibly sealed that moment in my mind as one of the most epic things I'll ever be a part of.

After the show I introduced Stacy to Joan, which was beyond an honor, and we fawned over Joan's amazing breast plate necklace. It was from her QVC collection, of course, and she offered to send me one. Not only did Joan offer me jewelry, she donated a bunch of stuff to the arts auction at my daughter's school, along with a signed headshot. I wish I had a copy. She was nothing but gracious when I worked with her, but the truth is, nothing came of my meeting with Joan Rivers. Nothing career-related, anyway. I didn't suddenly become a star after the episode aired, even though WEtv featured me heavily in their promos and really built a lot of the "wait 'til we get to this part of the episode" suspense around my brief appearance. Joan Rivers didn't change my life by putting me on her show. Joan Rivers changed my life by seeing me, the way that teacher did when I was in kindergarten. Joan told me I was funny - no, hysterical. Joan Rivers. One of the most hilarious women who has ever lived.

Joan: rest in power, you tiny giant! I hope you went to heaven so your beloved dog Max could lick your face and pee on your leg. And while dogs are great, we all know the shows are better in hell, so no matter where you are, to you I say, "Woof! Woof woof!" Thanks for giving me the opportunity to call someone like you a peer.


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