Friday, May 22, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Melissa Rivers's Tribute to Joan Rivers

It was three months after comedian Joan Rivers' death before her daughter Melissa Rivers made her first public speech about her mother. By then, the accolades and remembrances had reached flood stage, with celebrities and cultural critics weighing in on the legacy of Joan Rivers as a feminist, a trailblazing comic, an entertainer and a celebrity phenomenon.

What was left to say? Melissa Rivers found a way to deliver a sweet and funny tribute that managed to tie all the remembrances together in a defining package.  It was a speech that her mother probably would have loved for all its takedowns, since Joan worried about being canonized in some way after her death. In a room full of success--the venue was The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment breakfast--Melissa Rivers reminded the audience that her mother was known most for baring her life of imperfection and striving.

Watching the video of this speech, it's clear that Melissa Rivers doesn't sound exactly comfortable in this talk--or is as polished a performer as her mother was when it comes to delivering the laugh lines. For me, it's not her delivery but her theme that makes this speech a strong one. By focusing on her mother's bravery, she provided a context that could embrace both Joan's personal characters and professional achievements.  Nothing says that better than one of Melissa's closing lines: "If my mother were here sitting this morning, she'd not only be grateful and proud, she would be beyond herself. She'd be sitting at the table beaming, while very discreetly shoving croissants and silverware into her purse."

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • It's OK to quote, but be sure that their words lend something to your own. A tribute to Joan Rivers naturally tempts a speaker to steal some of her best lines for her own. And there may be too many zingers from Joan in this speech by Melissa, especially since Melissa doesn't seem as adept at the timing needed to pull them off. But she did choose her Joan anecdotes and jokes wisely, since they all the support the theme of bravery and fearlessness in the talk.
  • A tribute is different from an eulogy. This speech is a remembrance, offered not in the first weeks of grief or at a focused event like a funeral, so it doesn't have the weighty, emotional qualities of an eulogy. Appropriately, Melissa's tone and style is lighter but still reflective. This brief and focused speech benefits from the three months' wait that preceded it, I think, especially given that Joan's death was unexpected. The time probably gave Melissa Rivers--and her audience--a chance to consider what still needed to be said about her mother, and how the strands of her mother's life made sense as a whole.
  • Share your speech with the rest of us. We've talked often here about how women should make an effort to publish their speeches and move away from inadvertently silencing themselves. Melissa's tribute at the breakfast appeared first at her own website, which is something we'd like to see others do more often. The more we can see you as a role model and an inspiration, the better.
Here's the video:

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