University of Baltimore MFA student Nancy Murray recounts the day she got to know Joan Rivers quite personally.
In my acting days I had a reputation for being able to play any character at a moment’s notice. It didn’t matter if it was a murderous psychopath, a disco-dancing diva or a Puerto Rican man. If I played the character I could make it believable. I liked this about myself. I thought it said something about my ability to empathize with others. I was grateful for it because it meant that I always had work.
One afternoon I got a call from one of the area’s agencies. There was an emergency. Their star impersonator had been injured in some way. The details escape me. They asked around to find someone who could step up at a moment’s notice and develop the character. My name had come up more than once so they thought they would give me a chance.
I had 24 hours to prepare for a gig at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore. The job paid well but there were some very specific problems. The person who I was to impersonate was short and I was tall. She was impeccably dressed and my closet was full of jeans and t-shirts. She was considerably older than I was and had a very distinct voice that I would have to master in order to pull it off. And she was funny–really, very funny. I was not at all sure that I was up to the task of being Joan Rivers.
In my family, being funny was valued above all else. Integrity, honesty, loyalty and kindness were nonessential to our lives in the suburbs of Maryland. My mother survived the ordeals of a troubled marriage with a cutting wit and sharp tongue. I remember vividly how her laugh would split through the daily tensions and provide relief to us all. Making her laugh was the goal my siblings and I shared.
But I was not funny. As with many large families, each of my siblings and I had to struggle for an identity that was separate from the others. By the time I was born, my brothers and sister, all older than I, had already claimed their titles. Tim was the good one, Dawn, the pretty one, Chris, the special one, Jeff, the troubled one and Michael was the funny one. I grew up to be the philosophical one. Philosophy is definitely not funny.
I remember sitting with Michael on the brown and gold tweed sofa in the lower room of our split level home when we were pre-teens. The TV was almost always on, and Michael and I would act out the parts of the characters we watched. He paid close attention to the funny ones. He studied their timing, their irreverence. He was also transfixed by the fashionable ones. Naturally, one of the people he loved to watch was Joan Rivers.
So, when I hung up the phone with the agency I knew that the person who could help me prepare for this gig was Michael. I called him and explained the situation, and he said he was on his way.
While I waited for him to arrive I went to the internet to pull up images. I needed to put together a costume quick. The agency said they’d send a wig but the rest was up to me. I was thrilled to find that Joan’s own website had a section filled with her jokes. When I scrolled my curser over the joke, I could hear her voice telling it. I spent the next hours listening to and repeating her jokes over and over again. When my brother arrived he showed me how to prance around the room with my arms extended, to clap like a sea lion while shouting OH OH YES! He reminded me of her eye rolling “Can we talk?” that preempted one or another of her particularly offensive observations. Together we shouted, “Oh GROW UP!” until our throats were sore.
When he left it was time to work on a costume. I needed long nails, false eyelashes and gobs of makeup. None of these was a problem, but it was the middle of the night and I needed to create a flashy, exaggerated outfit for the red carpet.
I printed a picture of Joan with a long flowing robe lined with feathers, and I knew what I had to do. I pulled my sky-blue, satin robe off the hook behind my bedroom door and ran to my costume closet for the white boas that always came in handy. I stayed up the rest of the night sewing the boa feathers onto the edge of my robe and by midday the next day I had put the look together as best as I could. It was far from perfect and I was tired. I was also nervous. I wasn’t confident at all as I stood at the end of the red carpet with a microphone in my hand waiting for the theater-going guests to arrive.
But something happened to me when they did start to approach. Something I think Joan would have understood. I turned on and turned into that irreverent, loud-mouthed clown who would stop at nothing to make a person laugh. Things came out of my mouth that I was conditioned to sensor, but as Joan I was liberated from that conditioning. I said it all—I rode every impulse and when I offended I simply shouted, “Oh GROW UP.” I looked around me and saw a crowd gathering. Most of the faces in the crowd were twisted with uncontrollable laughter. The security guard was weeping with it. This fueled me, as I am sure it must have fueled Joan. How else could she have worked so constantly and diligently right up until the end? The ability to cut through the tension of everyday life by making people laugh is a gift. Joan is often criticized for being politically incorrect or insensitive to other’s feelings but I knew, after this day, that the critics were mistaken. Joan understood the pain people felt—and she was compelled to make fun of it in order to combat it.
Laughter is medicine. Laughter is freedom. As Joan Rivers was known to say, laughter is a little vacation from the pain. Thank you, Joan, for teaching me how to let go of my fear of being inappropriate and to flat out laugh at all of the absurd hang-ups of people, including myself.
Nancy Murray is a playwright and storyteller who lives and works in Baltimore City. She is currently obtaining her MFA at the University of Baltimore in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts.