How Joan Rivers almost achieved her ambition to die on stage

Outrageous, outspoken and razor-sharp, American comedian Joan Rivers, who died at the age of 81 yesterday, thrilled and offended in equal measure.

She made a career out of upsetting people and she did it brilliantly. What undoubtedly annoyed her critics was that, when it came to abuse, she was happy to take it as well as dish it out. She did so in her own inimitable way.

Chucked off a daytime TV programme for using a torrent of expletives she responded for demands for an apology by issuing statement: “I’m sorry I fucking swore!”

Ridiculed for her apparent obsession with plastic surgery, Joan Rivers faced-down critics by making the subject part of her act, joking that when she died she would donate her body to Tupperware.

Well now she has died, following a heart attack during routine throat surgery. Predictably perhaps many of those who were not too fond of her during her lifetime  have lined up to lavash praise upon her.

Joan would love it. She’d be howling with laughter at the wonderful hypocrisy of even her enemies finally admitting that she was a pioneer and a massive influence on women in comedy.

I suspect the only thing Joan wouldn’t enjoy about the subject of her own death would be the fact that she died in a hospital bed rather than on stage midway through her act.

I interviewed her several times over the years and it was clear that her own mortality was never far from her thoughts. The last time we spoke she was still coming to terms with being in her seventies and was about to embark on a ‘Farewell Tour’.

Not, she assured me, because she had any thoughts of giving up work – “No way, that would be so boring!” It was simply that “everyone seems to be doing farewell tours so I thought I’d better jump on the bandwagon.

“That word ‘Farewell’ has such  a promising ring to it. “I figured it might get the audience interested if it sounded like there was a chance I might die on stage.”

She warmed to her subject fast: ”Wow yeah, dying on stage. That’d be a fabulous way to go.” Then she remembered something vital. “It’d only really be fabulous mind you if it was in the second half of the act. My contract says I don’t get paid until I’ve done at least 31 minutes.

“I used to say to my daughter ‘If I’m on stage and anything happens to me just strap me to the stool’… as long as I do those 31 minutes.”

The death on stage was never to be but I’m glad Joan was working right up until a week before her death. She would have hated lingering. It wasn’t her style.

She used to relishes her reputation as one of the hardest working women in the world – “If you don’t count the hooker on the corner…” She was adamant that she would have hated it any other way.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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