Whoever said you shouldn’t meet your heroes? Comedian Karen Bayley doesn’t agree. After a lifelong love affair with legendary comedian Joan Rivers culminated in coming face to face with her idol backstage – an experience that left her with some classic Joan advice she’ll never forget.
She was tiny. That was the first thing I noticed. When I finally met my heroine, Joan Rivers, I towered above her like an over protective Gulliver. As I stood next to her I could smell her perfume – and it was surprisingly light and flowery. What was I expecting? The heady Opium, or more aptly named Poison? How could this woman who’d been the object of my obsession for the last 30 odd years be so diminutive…and delicate?
Oh my god. Did I really just use the word “delicate” to describe THE Joan Rivers? Trailblazer, pioneer, savagely sharp, and hilariously funny, yes – but delicate? I can imagine her looking down now, and screeching, “Don’t you have a thesaurus on that fucking thing?”
My love affair with Joan started years ago. A voracious reader, I devoured anything I could lay my hands on. And nestling in among Anne of Green Gables and Robinson Crusoe was a book with a blue cover with a photo of a coiffured blonde woman on the front. It was incongruous by the cover; yet more so by the contents. I was brought up strictly, and rudeness or swearing was a complete no-no, a heinous crime punished with a swift clip round the ear and mouths being rinsed out with soap. (I can still taste the carbolic; the budget couldn’t quite stretch to Imperial Leather.) As I’m writing, I’m pondering again what the hell was it doing there.
Regardless, there it was, this book that was to become my bible. The infinite quotes, jokes, and one-liners from the inimitable Ms. Rivers had me hooked. It was outrageous, irreverent and hilariously funny. How could a woman say these things? Did she have a close personal relationship with carbolic too?
I first saw her live about 10 years ago in Stoke. My friend (another comedian) and I howled with laughter from start to finish. Not so the people from Stoke; like a Songs of Praise audience accidentally stumbling into a dogging site, they seemed totally shocked. The woman next to me tutted so much, I was convinced she’d had an outboard motor fitted. And when Joan launched an attack on her own daughter, calling her a cunt for not accepting a Playboy centrefold, the poor woman was practically comatose. Not me though – I was in love. The woman was fearless. She said the things people thought but rarely voiced. And it was funny. It was very, very funny.
Shortly afterwards, my friend invited me to the live recording of An Audience With Joan Rivers. I was warned not to expect too much; that it would be irritatingly stop-start as they got the right shots and there would be no real flow to the show. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Joan did the show in one take, engaging fully with the audience and completely ignoring the cameras.
That was Joan the professional. But the true Joan emerged when they had to stop and refilm some of the entrance. A runner came up to hold the mic for her while a makeup girl touched up her face, and she shooed him away, growling, “Now I’m going to do some stuff they won’t allow me to do on TV.” With every dab of the powder puff, Joan gave us her real material. No celebrity was safe as her caustic remarks flew thick and fast, followed by the occasional begrudging “allegedly” – just in case any law-savvy producer was in. It was outrageous, shocking, and totally hilarious. When they finally refilmed her entrance, the cheers were unmistakably louder.
After that, my obsession grew unabated. I’ve watched full live concerts, clips on the internet, any little crumb I could find. I’ve also read several of her books, starting with her autobiographies Enter Talking and Still Talking (since they’re now out of print, can whichever git I lent them to please give them back?), which are probably the most inspirational books I’ve ever read. They show the resilience and tenacity of a woman who refused to give up; hauling a huge tape recorder to far flung gigs in her old pick-up truck. As a woman in comedy, it’s a fascinating image. These days in professional comedy clubs, there’s still rarely more than one woman on a bill, but to be the only woman on the entire circuit is almost unthinkable. Joan Rivers smashed down many a wall in her career and we all have much to thank her for.
In 2008, I went to see her one woman show in Edinburgh. Fellow comedian Sally Anne Hayward and I sat totally rapt as she told us her life story. We laughed, we cried and then we laughed some more. She finished the show with the words, “I’ve not peaked yet – behind me is a door and behind that another door, and I’m going to go through that door…come with me!” That was all we needed to hear; Sally Anne and I jumped to our feet and shouted, “We’re coming Joan. We’re coming!”
This brings me back to sniffing Joan’s perfume. I finally got to meet my heroine in 2012, at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, on what was to be her last tour. We were lucky enough to go backstage after the gig. When I met her, my mouth went dry; I tried to speak, but nothing came out. After much stammering and stuttering, I managed to tell her I’d seen her show in Edinburgh and how much I’d loved it. At this point I hadn’t seen her documentary A Piece of Work and wasn’t aware just how much this show had meant to her. She seemed genuinely thrilled that I’d liked it. I told her I’d jumped up at the end and shouted, and the great Joan Rivers let out a deep guffaw. My friend turned to me and whispered, “Oh my god. You’ve just made Joan Rivers laugh.” She chatted with us, posed for pictures and was utterly charming. I’ll never forget her parting words: “Never look back, only forwards, and it doesn’t matter how old you are, funny is funny – so just be funny.”
It was, and remains, brilliant advice. However, with your permission Joan, permit me to look backwards from time to time, to enjoy your work, your amazing legacy, and to treasure the day I met you.
Karen Bayley is a comedian. Follow her on @KarenBayley.