09/04/2014 09:57 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Joan Rivers: My Hero and My Cautionary Tale

Excerpted from Actor. Writer. Whatever. (essays on my rise to the top of the bottom of the entertainment industry), chapter entitled "Just Say No . . . or the Curious Case of Joan Rivers."

...Joan Rivers. Many think of her as someone whose only talent lies in sustaining third-tier celebrity-dom. She had completely fallen off my radar until I was clicking around late one night during a bout of insomnia (plague of the wound too-tight). I stumbled upon the documentary film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Until then, I had forgotten how provocative and edgy and groundbreaking she once was. I forgot she played all the same Greenwich Village clubs as Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce. I forgot Lenny Bruce was a huge fan of hers.

In my opinion, Joan Rivers is not seen as a comedy trailblazer in the same vein as Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce because (a) she is not dead, (b) she never turns down work, (c) she wants to be taken seriously, and (d) you can't have it both ways.

She's not dead. Joan Rivers's material was revolutionary. She was a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn talking about things nice Jewish girls from Brooklyn were not supposed to talk about. She got laughs instead of shocked silence, due to her exquisitely calibrated timing. It takes a tremendous amount of skill and talent and, dare I say, brilliance to do this. If instead of Lenny Bruce, it had been Joan Rivers found naked and dead at forty years old in her Hollywood Hills bathroom surrounded by a syringe and other paraphernalia, she would be a perfectly romantic figure, heralded as a comedic genius and a counterculture icon.

She would have joined the ranks of the other tortured soul genius icons, like Marilyn Monroe and Jim Morrison. People would be arguing over which was better, the Scorsese or the Coppola (Sofia) biopic about her. Her image would be on t-shirts, and books about her would line the shelves of independent bookstores. That's the nice thing about dying while you're young and hot and hip and cool. You go out on top of the world, adhering to the cardinal rule of showbiz:always leave 'em wanting more.

But alas, Ms. Rivers did not die and didn't want her career to stop at being a darling of the Borscht Belt or the Greenwich Village cabaret scene. She wanted mainstream success. She wanted to, in the parlance of Central Brooklyn, "blow up large, son" and worked ceaselessly until she graduated to bona fide celebrity-hood.

Once a star, she had a different job from performer or artist. Stars are products. Products need to be packaged, marketed, and sold. They need lawyers, agents, managers, assistants, and publicists. When Joan Rivers became a product she became a business, and with all the lovely spoils of being a successful business came all the responsibilities.

Every now and then, a TV show gets canceled because the star comes completely unhinged--abusing drugs, soliciting prostitutes, or just plain losing his shit. Joan Rivers does not allow herself such indulgences. Not only is she painfully aware that others depend on her for their livelihood, but she relishes treating them well, going so far as to send the children of her staff to private school (my résumé's in the mail).

At the point her career came crashing down, as all careers do if you stay in this business long enough (it's a scientific absolute, like the rising and setting of the sun), she was determined to keep working, keep others working, and keep living the lifestyle to which she'd become accustomed. She had to maintain the largeness to which she had blown up. She'd keep the lights on and the employees employed at all costs.

And the cost is, she never turns down work. Ever. In the documentary, we see her on a conference call discussing commercial endorsements. She lets everyone know that she will not turn down work, that she will "do anything." She will knock her teeth out and sell denture cream. She will wear a diaper. This is not because she has a toothless pamper fetish--she wants the cash. Unfortunately, you can't be willing to wear a diaper and expect the reviewer from the New York Times not to be prejudiced by it and to pan your one-woman show. If Rivers was young and painfully handsome with a sexy, shaggy haircut, she might be called a Renaissance man. A quirky eccentric. Like the indie film actor who writes a children's book, puts out an album of country hits, or has a gallery showing of his watercolors. That's arty. Dentures and diapers are not.

And there's the rub.

She wants to be taken seriously, and you can't have it both ways. And she should be taken seriously. She should be respected. Her television and comedy tour credits are endless. She's written screenplays, plays, books, and for television. She was nominated for a Tony Award and has an Emmy Award and a few honorary doctorate degrees. With more than forty years in the business, she could sit on her laurels. She could perform by rote and still get laughs, but every week she's not traveling she's at a small comedy club testing new material and honing her act. She is a consummate professional who has put in her ten thousand hours of practicing her craft twenty times over.

In 1971 she cowrote and starred in the Broadway show Fun City which the critics smashed to powdery shards. In the film, she gets choked up talking about it. It wouldn't still be so painfully raw after forty years, despite all she's attained, if she weren't an Actor, Writer, Whatever in her heart. An artist. Sadly, artist and celebrity mix about as well as oil and water.

Life is simpler when you choose one path and stick to that path. Joan Rivers could have chosen to just be happy with wealth and fame. Sure, keep the comedy act sharp, but beyond that, who cares. Stand on the red carpet, cash the check, live the high life. But she wants to do theater. She wants to keep acting and to be respected for it.

And this is how Joan Rivers vacillates between being my hero and being my cautionary tale. She still tries to have it all. With every bad review she could have quit. With every canceled show she could have quit. With every plastic surgery joke she could have quit (or she could have quit the plastic surgery--but I shouldn't judge), but performing is her calling. It's just what she does, and despite all the knockdowns she still puts herself out there in a way that leaves her vulnerable. This is so brave it stuns me.

The above excerpt is copyrighted by the author and appears courtesy of Ako Dako Press.