Joan Rivers gives mom the last laughs

Joan Rivers death has given one mom a chance to reflect on the role humor – even sometimes self-deprecating wit – plays in stress relief and relating to others.

Lionel Cironneau/AP/FILE
This Oct. 5, 2009 file photo shows Joan Rivers posing as she presents "Comedy Roast with Joan Rivers " during the 25th MIPCOM event in Cannes, France. Ms. Rivers, the raucous comedian who crashed the male-dominated realm of late-night talk shows and later became a top Hollywood red carpet pundit died Thursday, Sept. 4. She was 81.

The death of Joan Rivers has given even her oldest quips and quotes a huge lift, while offering us an opportunity to etch our own laugh lines a little deeper and in so doing relieve relationship stress by laughing with others and at ourselves.

Ms. Rivers liked her humor barbed and her truth unvarnished. In her own tough-love way she dragged us kicking and screaming with laughter into realizing it’s sometimes OK to have feelings of jealousy, unhappiness, anger, and insecurity about who we are and how the world sees us.

The key Rivers used to unlock those negative feelings was getting us to laugh them off.

“I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking,” Rivers was once quoted as saying.

While I choose not to retell her jokes about celebrities, I relate to her self-deprecating humor as a guilty pleasure that lets us of laugh in equal measure at both perfection and imperfection in ourselves and others.

From time to time I give myself a little test – inspired by Rivers – whenever I am feeling as if a woman I know is radically different from me, un-relatable, or perhaps superior to me. 

I tell a Joan Rivers joke, based on whatever topics we might not have in common, and see if she laughs.

If I think someone is looking down on my housekeeping I might reel off the line, “I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.”

When (and it has never failed) the other woman laughs and starts to tell her own stories about hating housework, while revealing her secret messy stories, we become friends instead of frenemies.

If you think someone your age looks or feels younger than you do, try this classic Rivers line: "You know you've reached middle age when you're cautioned to slow down by your doctor, instead of by the police."

I just tried that line on a very popular, local social butterfly, a mom 10 years my junior and she laughed as hard as I did and for what are likely the same reasons.

Rivers had a life strategy, "I have become my own version of an optimist. If I can't make it through one door, I'll go through another door—or I'll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present."

Because I am always feeling around in the dark for one of those doors I always liked that one.

Rivers didn’t have the last laugh, but rather passed it on to us as her jokes make the rounds on talks shows and in news articles.

In my case, her humor brought me closer to my mother today as we reacted to the news with what became a series of rapid-fire, one-upping Rivers zinger phone calls between New Jersey and here in Virginia.

“My mother could make anybody feel guilty – she used to get letters of apology from people she didn’t even know,” I quoted at my mother last night.

Mom and laughed shot back, “Oh grow up!” in classic Rivers’ style.

I called her back later and read the line, “I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.”

Then Mom told me a Rivers joke she’d just heard on television that applied to my wedding day 25 years ago, when my mother-in-law wore what my mom termed a “mourning-black” outfit from her closet and didn’t stay for the reception.

As the joke told my Rivers goes, “My mother-in-law hated me. Hated me! She wouldn’t even buy a new dress for the wedding. What does that tell you? She wore a half slip and a bra.”

Rivers’ in-laws apparently made it to her reception and the ensuing joke on the subject reminded me to be careful what I wished for.

“I knew my mother-in-law didn’t like me when they wheeled in the wedding cake and she bit the head off the bride,” she quipped.

My mom-in-law and I have since become very close and I will be calling her later to tell her those wedding jokes.

Reading between the punch lines you always saw that Rivers sincerely loved her family. The wicked little jibes were just part of a more colorful family tradition than others might have.

Even her straight lines flew like an arrow to the heart of family matters.

“Both of my parents got to see me host Carson, thank God. That's all anyone wants: to have their parents see they're going to be all right in life,” she is quoted as saying.

Rivers may have been focused on her own appearance, and her efforts to remain eternally youthful, but she certainly had no qualms over leaving the rest of us with plenty of laugh lines to show for her life’s work.

The best thing we can do to honor her is not to waste those lines, but to put them on the faces of others as the result of many smiles.

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