A Real Piece of Work

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Nothing is permanent but change, said a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus around 500 BC. Well, one doesn’t have do be an expert in Greece or philosophy to know that this was rather prescient.

Imagine saying something – anything – that is still relevant 2500 years later?

Joan Rivers stayed relevant for at least that long. Okay, maybe it’s more of a “Jewish” 2500, which in my tribe would translate to a lifetime. But if you play it right, one lifetime is enough. And who knows, maybe all those centuries later someone will still be saying, Can we talk, as they dish the latest fashions on a show someone else is watching via some random iPhone. Which at that point will probably be an invisible Nano chip implanted directly into their EYE, rather than the i’s we now all know and love.

The death of Ms. Rivers this week – or Joan, as I was fortunate enough to call her the several times we met – collided with a lot of other renowned celebrity deaths and worldwide news in the last few weeks. But none so strangely 2014 Joan-worthy material as the massive iCloud cyber theft of naked photos of Oscar-winning actress and reigning American sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence, among others, that went viral. It’s sort of beside the point – or perhaps it is the point – but I keep wondering, what would Joan have had to say about all that?

Oh please, if I looked like Jennifer Lawrence naked you could’ve seen those pictures on every website in the world – but never for free. Dumb bitch!! Doesn’t she know one day those boobies will be mopping the floors for free?? (Insert Joan miming a boob mopping visual).

Or maybe she would have taken a different tack about any woman misguided enough to even snap pictures of themselves unclothed-

What is wrong with them? I’ve never even seen myself naked! How do you think I lived this long? (beat) And you wonder why Edgar killed himself.

Oh, grow up!!! You think she wouldn’t have gone there? Well, maybe she would have but surely she would’ve been funnier – a lot funnier. A lot, lot funnier. Which is one of so many reasons why we still need her around.

Would you expect anything less?

Would you expect anything less?

I tweeted this week that Joan Rivers was the only person who could offend me and make me laugh at exactly the same time. I meant it as the highest of compliments. I tend to lose my sense of humor about certain subjects that cut too close to the bone. For instance, I don’t find AIDS jokes funny. In the same way my parents’ friends don’t like to yuck it up about the Holocaust, Mel Brooks’ The Producers not withstanding.  Yet on the latter point here was Joan just a few months ago on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, explaining why she arrived to the studio late.

…They sent this big stretch Mercedes limousine for us and it got stuck – it wouldn’t move for two and a half hours! And I’m thinking the whole time, the Germans killed 6 million Jews and you can’t fix a f-cking carburetor?!

Oh Joan, Joan, Joan.

There is a brand of groundbreaking comedians who changed comedy so drastically that we will never quite see the likes of again because the times have changed so drastically since they started performing in the early and still uptight 1960s. Little-known names like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen (not to mention the tail end of Lenny Bruce) scrounged around the seedy little Bohemian nightclubs of Greenwich Village, New York hoping to board the train of fame and fortune but happy just to be making a couple of bucks.

That was a time when there were exactly two mainstream female standup comics in the entire world – Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields – neither of whom were in their twenties. But every so often through force of will and talent – and often it takes both – someone breaks through the glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton so famously referred to in her 2008 concession speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. This does not mean that even now we live in a post-racial, post-feminist, post-Holocaust or post-gay world – as any number of recent news events certainly bare witness to. It only means that occasionally an individual comes along that won’t be stopped, and they open the door for a few others of their kind who manage to sneak through, which makes the entrance even bigger for a larger but still select group of some more of their types to come in. That is, until it’s the turn of another totally different individual of still yet another group or sensibility – when the cycle starts all over again.

We can thank Joan for paving the way for these ladies

We can thank Joan for paving the way for these ladies

The Bottom line – or – to put it another way: It’s never particularly easy – ever – for anyone who aspires to be at the top of anything when they do not act or look like everyone else at the peak of that mountain that they aspire to.

The terrain one takes to get to the top of the mountain keeps getting updated but the climb is not dissimilar. And it’s an ongoing, lifetime fight that’s a lot more difficult to deal with than the cyber stealing of a celebrity’s private nude shots. Sure, the latter seems particularly sleazy and heinous at this time but is it any worse than the distribution of previously unseen nudies some unscrupulous photographer took that caused now famed TV and musical theatre actress Vanessa Williams, then the first black Miss America, to be deposed from her throne in 1983 for something she did when she was broke and needed the money? Those same types of photos were also taken three decades earlier of another young, aspiring star – Marilyn Monroe. But both didn’t do too badly for themselves (well, relatively) even as they tried to exploit, and in turn found themselves exploited by, the business they so very much wanted to become a part of.

One might argue that it is different in the case of the Jennifer Lawrence photos since they were private and not done under contract or paid for like the others. But that is precisely what is NOT the difference in 2014. NOTHING. IS. PRIVATE. Especially when it is committed to film or still photography. And most especially when its owner posts it anywhere online. Rule of thumb: assume once you’ve posted it anywhere it can easily be accessed ad infinitum everywhere.

Truth!

Truth!

Joan Rivers recognized where this was all going decades before any of the rest of us did. She operated from the idea that nothing was sacred – especially when it applied to the rich and famous – meaning the people who could afford to take it. And most especially when it came to her stock in trade – laughter.

When another funny woman, Nora Ephron, died several years ago, many of the post mortems cited one of her mottos that she claimed was given to her early on by another comedy writer – her late mother and Hollywood screenwriter, Phoebe Ephron. And that advice was:

Everything in your life that happens to you is material.

Joan took this adage one step further– Everything that happens to anyone else, everywhere else is your material.

And she would tell you where to stick it.

And she would tell you where to stick it.

Joan used this material for her comedy and she was fearless about it. She may or may not have meant it as a motto or way to live in the new 21st century world we are all forced to inhabit but when you stop and think it just might be a pretty smart strategy to realize that:

Nothing is sacred and not much can be hidden. So it’s probably a lot better to be open and honest about it all than to try and pretend you or it are something you’re not.

After all – as one speech teacher said to me years ago when I confessed I was quite nervous to get up in front of a room full of people – everyone goes to the bathroom the same way. Just picture them doing that – or naked in the shower. That should set your mind at ease. (Note: Yes, a teacher in school once told me that. And you wonder why I followed in that person’s footsteps).

But back to Joan, who I’m very happy not to ever have to follow even though in some small way I am.

The early days

The early days

Longevity and fearlessness are rarities in the Business of Show and even more infrequent in the Business of Life. People flame out – their fires doused by others or the group efforts of the unfriendly worlds that cohabitate all around them. That’s why a career of almost 60 years with its countless ups and downs, triumphs, offenses and reinventions – and most importantly – unerring ability to stay relevant to audiences and pop culture no matter what the cost – is worth saluting. Can you name another 81 year-old entertainer starring in three television shows and still doing 300 club dates per year cracking up people all over the world (or even offending them – it’s just the opposite side of the exactly the same coin) up until the night before they died? I certainly can’t. (Click here to take a small break with some of Joan’s best work)

Full confession: Despite having some mutual friends, I only got to speak to Joan at any great length more than a year ago at a friend’s birthday party. She was funny, self-deprecating and incredibly smart and well read – a softer, more thoughtful version of her stage persona – and a lot more gracious that I expected. After several hours together – and in one of the rare moments when the laughter died down – I decided to go for it and share something I told her I had always wanted to say to her. A long beat went by and she looked at me a bit fearfully and said, uh, oh.

My own "Can We Talk" moment

My own “Can We Talk” moment

Oh no, I responded, it’s nothing bad.

Okay, she said, still not quite believing.

It’s just that – I always wanted to thank you. See, in the early eighties you did the first AIDS benefit I ever went to at Studio One (NOTE: A small gay nightclub in West Hollywood) and it was at a time when no one else famous was really speaking up. I just so really appreciated it. As did many of my friends who are no longer here.

She looked back at me sincerely and said thank you and revealed that she had received several death threats that evening if she dared to perform.

Weren’t you afraid, I wondered?

A little, she responded. But we hired a couple of big bodyguards, who I’m sure everyone thought just worked there. I would never NOT do the show because of that.

Fearless.

In the middle, at the beginning and to the very end.

Shakespeare meets Kim Kardashian

Are you writing your life story or letting someone else write it for you? What happens when what you want to do runs counter to every logical action you should be taking – at least according to those around you?  Do you follow your inner voice; ignore it’s/your profound urges; or forge a compromise somewhere in between?

That question came to mind after watching the movie “Anonymous” this weekend.

For the 99% of you who haven’t yet seen this movie and will no doubt EVER see it –

“Anonymous” asks the burning 2011 question – did Shakespeare really write all of his own plays and sonnets or was it someone else?   Perhaps accounting for its grosses, the very 2011 answer to this question is:

WHO GIVES A RAT’S ASS! I CAN’T GET A JOB; I’M BROKE; I’M NOT DOING WHAT I WANT IN LIFE; I HATE MY JOB; MY LACK OF LOVE LIFE OR PRESENT LOVER/MATE/HOOK UP STINKS; THE WORLD IS GOING INTO THE CRAPPER SO WHY BOTHER WITH ANYTHYING; AND TO TOP IT OFF KIM KARSDAHSIAN GOT PAID $17 MILLION (despite what her Mama says) TO GET MARRIED ON TV AND HAS FAME, FORTUNE AND UNLIMITED MILES TO EVERY AIRLINES AND NOW GETS WHAT LOOKS LIKE A PRETTY CLEAN, SCOTT FREE DIVORCE SO WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT SOME QUILL PUSHER FROM 400 YEARS AGO WHO WROTE PLAYS THAT I NEVER UNDERSTOOD ANYWAY AND ALWAYS MADE ME FEEL STUPID!?

Uh, okay.  Point taken.  But still —

Here’s the thing —   It’s not really about whether you think this movie, or any movie, TV show, play or web site, is good or bad or indifferent.  It’s really, “can this make me laugh, cry or, perish the thought, think?”  “Anonymous” has made a lot of purists of the literary theatrical world angry about issues that matter to them.   They don’t fancy that some uppity TV writer (screenwriter John Orloff, best known for “Band of Brothers”) is telling the world that a nobleman named the Earl of Oxford wrote all those plays instead of an uneducated former actor (Shakespeare) who also did odd working class jobs before he could support himself with his art.  They think the issue of this movie is whether Shakespeare did indeed write all of that stuff.

I don't even know who you are anymore!

Quite simply – they’re wrong.  As wrong as the rest of us who don’t really want to see films anymore about subjects that, on the surface, don’t lead with our obvious interests.   (Me included – though I did see “Real Steal” and had a fun time!).   What the movie/story of “Anonymous” IS really asking us is this: What happens when you don’t following your heart and are stuck living a life that is dictated by other people?  What the movie “Anonymous” poses is that the REAL Shakespeare was really this educated guy named the Earl of Oxford who was not SUPPOSED to be a writer but live in a respectable way because of what his FAMILY and PEERS expected him to be.  But all the Earl feels passionate about is his WRITING (They called it being a “poet” in those days).  But instead of facing them (family and friends) head on, this RICH KID tried to have it both ways (never a good idea) and be extra crafty.  So he wrote and wrote and wrote anonymously and when he was ready and older (and way less happy) with a huge output of work, he hired a younger guy (Shakespeare) to pass himself off as the public author of all the Earl’s writings so the Earl could continue his anonymous life as a nobleman with the satisfaction that what he wanted to say to the world (and there were a lot of “screw you’s in his plays”) would finally get out there and he could still be “RESPECTABLE” (or be hidden).

Recipe for disaster?  Well, uh, yeah.  As we really know in 2011, you can’t have your cake and eat it too (calling Herman Cain?  Maybe even the Kardashians) because any time you try to live a little bit of a lie or do things for the wrong reasons it just gets worse and worse for you until you end up with, well, living and dying on the twisted end of fame – hounded by the very forces you once were convinced were your “lovers” or even friends.

Number 9 looks just like you

Spoiler: It doesn’t end well for the Earl of Oxford.  So the real 2011 question is – what do we learn from his story?   No – the answer is not don’t make a serious costume drama in 2011 and expect today’s Kardashian-bent moviegoers to attend, even though I’d be hard pressed to mark that answer wrong on a multiple choice test.  Nor is it – I don’t want to be a writer or anything in the arts so I don’t care.  It is – I’m going to have to take my shot; make my mistakes; because in the end at least I’ll know they’re mine.  That alone has to be better than succeeding on someone else’s terms (ask the Earl of Oxford or, well, even Kim Kardashian at this point, who seems to not be quite laughing all the way to divorce court).

Most human beings that I know, myself included, don’t dedicate their life to full service (Gandhi and Mother Teresa were exceptions.  Or – were they?).  So it’s hard to follow the advice of people like Tom Brokaw who this week said that you measure your life by contributions to your government and community, not the amount of toys you can buy; or Steve Jobs, whose sister Mona Simpson eulogized him as a guy who worked every single day of life (including weekends).  This is especially so since they got to play with all the toys they ever wanted.  Brokaw, through his network TV work, had hundreds of acres of farm land in his home state and quite fancy and expensive NY digs, and hobnobbed with every famous person in the world for decades.  Jobs, lauded as one of the great inventors of modern times, still indulged himself with 100s of the same shirts he loved from a single store or flying in the best marble in the world from a particular region in Italy in order to build Apple headquarters exactly the way he wanted.  Yes, one man’s toy is another man’s discarded Kardashian – but still – what’s important to remember is they both got their toys doing what they loved to do.  Just as Shakespeare – or whoever he was – found his only true happiness (and wealth – personal and/or literal – who knows why some hit the money jackpot and get both) from doing HIS writing.   As he wisely once said — the PLAY‘s, the thing.  No matter who he (or they?) really was.  The words still hold true today.