When I share that my role model is Joan Rivers, I often get confused looks. People think of only plastic surgery, old age, and cheap jokes. That inadequate description misses the true essence of Joan’s brilliance and contribution.
Some will write accurately that Joan had incredible drive, stamina, and resilience—hosting TV shows in her 80’s, writing twelve books, and persevering after losing her husband to suicide.
But what captivated my heart at age 10 and inspires me still today, was her ability to open a door of intimacy with her audiences and laugh about topics people didn’t even talk about.
In the mid 1980’s, Joan Rivers was the regular guest host of the Tonight Show. I was in middle school and would regularly sneak out of bed at 11:30pm to be mesmerized by her monologues broaching tough topics that no one else dared explore: sex, abortion, aging, not liking kids, insecurity, and rejection.
Thus, when my 7th grade English assignment was “present on the topics in To Kill a Mockingbird,” I decided to channel Joan. I glued sequins and shoulder pads to one of my mom’s dresses, teased out my hair, and walked confidently into that classroom impersonating Joan—with her signature straight armed clap, corny jokes, and “Can we talk?” to broach the tough topics of that book with my classmates. I got an A+.
By the 8th grade I was speaking in front of, and challenging, the Secretary of Interior and our state’s Governor on tough environment issues (without the sequins and impersonation. This time, the voice was mine.)
Joan Rivers was possibility and her ease with breaking boundaries inspired me to break them as well.
One way that she eased us all into these topics was with her own self-disclosure. For example, she didn’t just talk abstractly about aging. She shared intimately about her own experience of it, her reluctance to it, and her own attempts to stop it in its tracks. I give her tremendous credit for being honest about her plastic surgeries. Aging stinks. Why not talk about it—and even laugh at it?
When I now approach tough topics with corporate audiences, it’s my self-disclosure and vulnerability that connect me to my audience and bring my message to life. Sharing lessons from my own botched connections or decisions can be more powerful, and much funnier, than simply telling you how to do it perfectly. Being able to look back, laugh at, and learn from past experiences is how we grow.
Joan repeatedly defended her more boundary-breaking jokes (most recently about the holocaust) as a way to get people to talk about things we don’t talk about—and comedy was her way to grease the wheels of discussion. Joan Rivers was “leaning in” well before Sheryl Sandberg. My hope is that her remembrances pay tribute to this part of her well-honed craft and the trail she blazed for so many of us to lean in and laugh. Because of Joan Rivers, so many more of us are asking, “Can we talk?” In her honor, let’s continue the conversation.
I’d love to hear who influenced you to do what you do! Please share!