Joan Rivers: Not a person I ever thought I would write about. I was never a fan, finding her humor too biting and personal for my taste. Ad hominem, even. I also dislike celebrity culture, and in the last years of her life Rivers specialized in skewering celebrities and their private lives, developing a brand of inside Hollywood humor that seemed more and more distant from daily life. Relevantly and egotistically: More and more distant from me. While it may be true that her superficiality was an act and not her offstage personality, it was not a persona that appealed to me. I prefer substance in my humor.
And yet she possessed a rare drive that was hard to ignore. Her work ethic showed in her longevity, as she re-invented herself again and again, surviving as a comic from the sixties all the way to 2014. Such longevity almost never occurs in comedy, unless it is paired with superhuman effort.
Nevertheless, I wouldn't have given even this much thought, if not for a profile of Rivers on CBS Sunday Morning that aired a few months before she died. During the interview, she displayed a huge set of filing cabinets in her home that were full of 3 x 5 index cards. On the index cards were, she said, every joke she ever told, organized by subject and stamped with the date she first told them. There were hundreds of thousands of cards.
To collect every joke you ever wrote over a 50 year career and to catalog each one and file it away in a card catalog shows a remarkable dedication to craft. Although it was impossible to tell if she really had a card for every single joke in her long career, the catalog looked to be large enough that if all of them weren't there, it had to be close. I've seen substantial libraries with smaller card catalogs than Joan Rivers had in her home.
This was something I could relate to. It is the kind of thing that would impress any writer. Writing, after all, is nothing if not the process of collecting ideas and organizing them into a coherent body of work. To do this consciously and unfailingly over five decades is a remarkable dedication to craft, one many of the best writers never match. I would have loved to have spent a morning with that catalog, reading through 50 years of jokes, noting style changes and Rivers's own evolution over time. I bet there is a lot to learn.
Despite her superficiality, she was an artisan after all. You never know.