Ruthless, biting, raunchy, totally un-PC and above all hilarious.
Joan Rivers kept the laughs coming for more than five decades, through stellar career highs and even during a virtual shut-out by the Hollywood machine in the 1980s.
She was a tireless performer with a multi-faceted career that included work in stand-up comedy, late-night and daytime talk shows, writing (12 books), movie acting, screenwriting, film directing, fashion and jewelry design, and producing and starring in a web-based chat series.
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Rivers continued to fascinate right up until her death on September 4. The comedian was hospitlaized and placed on life support after she stopped breathing while having minor throat surgery at a clinic in New York City on Aug. 28. She was 81.
Early Days in New York Comedy Clubs
After attending Barnard College, where she appeared in numerous campus performances, Rivers flirted briefly with a career as a chain store buyer but returned to performing soon after. She appeared in a number of small plays before abandoning acting for a life working the burgeoning comedy club scene of New York City alongside contemporaries such as George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and David Brenner.
"Everyone was down there!" Rivers said of the scene in an interview for SiriusXM's "Unmasked" series in July, making particular note of Lenny Bruce. "They would let us all in to see him. It was a magical time for all of us, because you knew how brilliant comedy could be. You know? There was a god there to say, 'Yeah, that's what I want to do. That's what I want to be.'
"You were suddenly able to talk about yourself," she added. "I was able to stand up there and talk about having an affair with a married professor. Which was shocking at the time!"
"The Tonight Show" and the 1960s
Years spent struggling in Greenwich Village cabarets and Borscht Belt showrooms paid off when Rivers was booked to appear on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in 1965.
"You have to understand, it was after seven years of being told, 'You’re too wild, you’re too crazy, a girl can’t say those kinds of things.'" Rivers told EW of the time preceding her big break on Carson.
"Three weeks before I was on the Carson show, my own agent said to me, 'Everybody’s seen you, it ain’t gonna happen.' And not in a mean way. Just, 'Sweetheart, go to law school.' And the night before I went on Carson, a comic bombed and Bill Cosby — who was white hot at that moment — he had seen me in the Village and he said to them, you might as well use Joan, she can’t be any worse than the guy you had on last night! I was brought on in the last 10 minutes of the show — the worst slot. And God bless Johnny Carson, he said right there on the air, 'You’re going to be a big star.'"
Rivers went on to make other appearances on "The Tonight Show" as well as "The Ed Sullivan Show" before landing a short-lived daytime talk show, "That Show With Joan Rivers." It was one of the first syndicated daytime talk shows, and Johnny Carson was her first guest.
She soon made television history as the permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show" and helped launch the nascent Fox Network in 1986 with "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers." In 1989, Joan triumphantly returned to daytime TV with "The Joan Rivers Show," winning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host.
"Can We Talk?"
Rivers' appeal was all in the delivery. She told jokes to audiences of all sizes, both live and on television, as if she were talking to a girlfriend or trusted confidant. Her conversational, often gossipy tone allowed Rivers to crack wise about subjects taboo for women comics of her era: sex, men, marriage, infidelity, physical appearance, race and religion.
Her opening gambit of "Can we talk?" immediately put the audience on her side. It was Rivers drawing people into her world of barbed puns and social commentary. Of the catchphrase, she told EW it was developed in Vegas in the ’80s. "It was probably about Elizabeth Taylor being fat and people gasped, and I went, 'Can we talk here?' What you’re really saying is, 'Come on, are we going to talk the truth?'"
Rivers never played down her femininity. Instead, she celebrated her gender and used it as a tool to poke fun at everyone from audience members to celebrities to, most notably, herself. Flipping social mores, Rivers' message was that of a modern woman trying to make sense of rapidly changing modern times through laughter.
She was never a caricature, except perhaps in later years, and then it was simply a more outsized, plastic-surgery-enhanced version of herself. The furs and jewels became bigger, and her face became tighter – all the better to poke fun at while broadening her fan base (and bank accounts) through books, home shopping collections and more frequent forays back into television.
Throughout the 1970s Rivers was a regular on Carson's "Tonight Show," with the comic often sitting in for the host. But as the comic branched out on her own to host a late-night show on the burgeoning Fox Network, Carson blanked her both personally and professionally.
"The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" aired from October 1986 to May 1987, but Carson's freeze continued. After Carson's death in 2005, Rivers said that he never forgave her for leaving, and never spoke to her again.
Rivers addressed the break in a 2012 article she penned for The Hollywood Reporter, writing that the first person she called after accepting the Fox gig was Carson.
"He hung up on me – and never, ever spoke to me again. And then denied that I called him. I couldn’t figure it out. I would see him in a restaurant and go over and say hello. He would’t talk to me," she wrote, adding, "I kept saying, 'I don’t understand, why is he mad?' He was not angry at anybody else. I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him. I know this sounds very warped. But I don’t understand otherwise what was going on. For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But I think it was a question of, 'I found you, and you’re my property.' He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him."
Carson's pull in Hollywood was so great that many in the industry turned their back on Rivers in deference to "The Tonight Show" host. The comic's ban from "The Tonight Show" was respected by Carson's first two successors Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. The result was that Rivers did not appear on the show again until Feb. 17, 2014, when she made a brief appearance on new host Jimmy Fallon's first episode. She returned again once more on March 27, 2014, for a full interview.
Live From the Red Carpet
Only three months after she was fired from "The Late Show," tragedy struck when Rivers' husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide in Philadelphia. Rivers blamed the tragedy on his "humiliation" by Fox (Rosenberg was executive producer on the late-night show).
It was two years before she returned to television full-time, this time with another daytime TV talk show, "The Joan Rivers Show." It ran for five years and won her a Daytime Emmy in 1990.
1994 saw Rivers and daughter Melissa begin their red carpet award show dominance, thanks to an initial gig hosting the E! Entertainment Television pre-awards show for the Golden Globe Awards. Rivers' biting fashion critiques and lack of reverence for Hollywood celebrity proved a hit with viewers, and the mother-daughter team went on to host pre-award shows for the network through 2003, then switching to the TV Guide Channel to perform similar duties up until 2011.
Asked during the 2011 Television Critics Association press tour why they stepped away from the red carpet, Melissa said, "We’ve done that. It’s not fun anymore."
"When we were doing it, you could tell Julia Roberts, 'I hate your dress,'" added Joan. "Now publicists ice you if your insults are too incendiary."
"Police" Work, a Documentary and Constant Touring
By 2010, at age 77, Rivers was back on top, having won NBC's "The Celebrity Apprentice" and performed a string of sold-out stand up tours and had returned to E! as host of the weekly program "Fashion Police," which reaches more than 10 million worldwide, according to Rivers' website. She was also the subject of the critically-acclaimed documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." The no-holds-barred film examines her fondness for plastic surgery, how she deals with hecklers and her indefatigable approach to touring and work in general.
Just prior to her death, Rivers authored her twelth book "Diary of a Mad Diva," hosted the Emmy- and VMA-focused edition of "Fashion Police," and continued to produce and star in her weekly web series, "In Bed with Joan," in which she interviewed actors, singers and rising comics.
Rivers continued to perform live stand-up, including a gig in New York City the night before she fell ill and was rushed to hospital. And like everything else in life, death was merely a source for more laughter.
"She did a joke onstage, she goes, 'I’m 81 — I could go at any moment,'" Shade Rupe, who attended the Wednesday night show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, told the New York Daily News. "'I could fall over right here, and you all could say, ‘I was there!''"