On work ethic and show business

12 September 2014

Joan Rivers had a deplorable tendency, especially later in her life, to use her humor to punch down just as often, if not more, as she punched up, and, by her life’s close, it had soured her as an inspiration to me. Which is unfortunate not only on a human level, but also because the example she set of a hard-working, old-school, show business woman is fading, and the disappearance of that example is a loss to us all.

There are few modern career women who worked as consistently hard as Joan Rivers did. Watch her documentary, A Piece of Work (which I recommend doing if you haven’t yet) to get a vividly clear picture of this. She came from the noble performance tradition of the 20th century, wherein you take every job you can and you give everything you have every time. Another example of this, also recently lost, is the terrific Elaine Stritch (who also has a documentary to her credit, Just Shoot Me). In the Hollywood studio system, Barbara Stanwyck was legendary for her professionalism and lengthy career. These days, Louis C.K., is known as one of the hardest-working performers in business and was respected by Joan herself, who described him as, “knowing his craft.” High praise from a seasoned professional indeed.

Nothing has ruined the honor of work more than the insistence it all must be done from all-absorbing passion and love. It’s become the newly acceptable way to look down on the working class and those who hustle because they have to. And, yes, all those hard workers I described are artists doing what they love, but they all understand that with the privilege of choosing work you love comes the responsibility to earn it and that there are no shortcuts. Ever.

I learned a lot from Joan Rivers about earning my professional privilege. When I started speaking at conferences to increase my network and connections, I kept her mantra in mind: never turn down a gig. I do everything I can to keep gaining experience and keep myself in circulation. I do large events and I do small events. As a single parent, I lose money on every gig (even honorariums usually to go towards offsetting childcare or travel costs), but what my speaking has done for my long-term career opportunities is irreplaceable, and without those opportunities I wouldn’t be able to take care of the kid at all. If this is the work you chose, you can’t afford not to do it, even if it costs you in the short term. If this is the work you chose, it’s a matter of honor to do it, as the acting teacher Stella Adler said, “like Hercules.”

“Here’s what I’m saying,” Joan Rivers concluded, “’You go through any door that opens.’ In the beginning, you go through the doors. You don’t know which is going to be the one.” As you go on, you do earn more doors and more privilege in choosing one door or another, and being smart about balance and growth is key. You can’t keep working if you don’t take care of yourself well enough to do it effectively. But it seems important not to forget that, in the beginning, you had to go though every door. If you became complacent or conceited, you could still miss the door that changes everything. Or, even worse, you could lose the character that defined you and made it possible for you to open the doors in the first place.

There might be more of us working in show business than we realize. The next step is realizing that might not be a bad thing.

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