Last week I found myself at the very artsy and wonderful Laemmle Cinema in Santa Monica. This is a regular haunt for me – it helps me stay connected to the beauty of great writing and film making in a time when most of our media is un-settlingly dumbed-down. What drew me there on this occasion was the new Joan Rivers documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work.
I have to be honest – I did not know a thing about Joan Rivers. I grew up in Australia and I was too young to ever really get into the Johnny Carson Show – and I don’t really remember being aware of it. As kids we were allowed only very limited time in front of the Television and that didn’t include Johnny!
I LOVED this documentary about Joan. To me it explodes many of the myths about fame and success and shows what that word SUCCESS is about. I always recommend that artists read Irving Stone’s “The Agony & The Ecstasy” (The life of Michelangelo) to get a grasp of what being a great artist might really entail. I’m not suggesting that Joan Rivers is in the same boat as Michelangelo but I think that we can all learn a great deal from her – so go see this doco!
Here are a few things that I learned from Joan:
Dare To Be Different! Right from the very start of her career, Joan was pushing the boundaries of what was considered normal or acceptable for performers and especially for women – and I doubt that she ever stopped pushing those boundaries. How can you be a great artist without the will to express the real you?
Say What You Want. Too often in life we accept less than we should or could. Many of us punish ourselves with meagre lives when we actually want more! There is a great line in the movie where Joan says something like, (I’m paraphrasing from memory) “If I was careful I would have enough to live a modest life without working – but I don’t want a modest life!”. That works on many levels too – we’re not just talking money here.
Don’t Be Too Proud To Stoop. “I’ll do anything”, says Joan at one point in the movie. She is sitting with her agent and they are on the speaker-phone with another agent. This is a point where Joan really needs some cashflow and she is not too proud to grab whatever is on the table. Why? Because it means that she can keep going for a little while longer and that will get her to the next big thing. Sometimes you get the sense that she has to endure a lot of these in between steps but she does it with a smile and a great sense of humor. Lesser artists would throw in the towel – and Joan is in her 70s!
Constantly Practice Your Craft. After a lifetime of performing, and a wall filled with index card files of all the jokes she has ever told you might think that Joan would just cruise for the rest of her career. No way! On evenings when she is not doing her regular gigs she can often be found in tiny off-broadway bars and performance-spaces trying out new material. And she is constantly writing new material – there is a great scene where she is on the floor of her bathroom writing out jokes on big sheets of paper as she giggles away!
Life (and Success) Runs In Cycles. Contrary to popular new age myth, life is not a straight line of constant success. Success and happiness come hand-in-hand with great challenges and many failures along the way – even at the heights of a career. Joan is a great example of someone who has learned to accept the journey with all its ups and downs and wins and losses. I got the sense that she loves and accepts life for what it is – and even when things get really tough she never stops working!
Love What You Do So Much That You Can’t Stop. This seems to be the essence of Joan River’s life. In her mid-seventies when most people are at least trying to take it easy, Joan is checking into a Minneapolis hotel at 4am and getting up at 6am to prepare for another show. Who would do that? Someone incredibly driven for sure – but only someone who also has an insatiable love for their craft!
The Joan Rivers documentary is very “real” – those principles I mentioned above are mixed in with plenty of true life grit and experience and a good dose of humor. A very real artist with a lot of life experience to share – we could all learn something from her.