Joan Rivers, Comedian and TV Host, Dies at 81

Raunchy, gravelly voiced and self-deprecating comedian Joan Rivers, who rose from Greenwich Village standup to occasional host of “The Tonight Show” and star of TV’s “Fashion Police,” died Sept 4. She was 81.

“She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends,” her daughter, Melissa, said in a statement. “My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”

Rivers had been admitted to New York’s Mt. Sinai hospital after she stopped breathing during a Aug. 28 procedure on her vocal cords at a New York clinic and was placed in a medically induced coma to assess her condition.

SEE ALSO: Hollywood Mourns the Loss of Rivers: ‘One of a Kind’

A petite blonde firebrand, the always-wry Rivers, known for the catchphrase “Can we talk?,” was a pioneering confessional female comic, lampooning her personal life (her parents, her marriage, her plastic surgery) on TV and in clubs for more than five decades.

Whatever the gig — permanent replacement host on “The Tonight Show,” co-host of “Fashion Police,” her own varied syndicated talkshows, Vegas engagements, bestselling nonfiction books, often biting commentator on awards’ show arrivals along with daughter Melissa and even QVC saleswoman — the petite, feisty Rivers was never far out of the spotlight.

Her biting comedy, ability to ad-lib effortlessly in any situation and sheer moxie endeared her to generations of television viewers. She was the ultimate yenta, the quintessential kibbitzer — a talent exemplified in her scathing commentary on E!’s “Fashion Police.” Rivers started co-hosting the show in 2010 along with Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne and George Kotsiopoulos.

Never afraid of working blue or appearing politically incorrect, she repeatedly stirred up controversy. This summer alone, she first raised hackles in July when she called first lady Michelle Obama “transgender” and implied that President Obama is gay.

But even many fans who cut her slack for her edgy material before thought she crossed the line with her remarks on Palestine in early August. Though she posted a clarification of her statement on her Facebook page, it didn’t amount to an apology from the stalwart support of Israel. “What I said and stand behind is, war is hell and unfortunately civilians are victims of political conflicts,” Rivers said, explaining that she was praying for peace in the Middle East.

Back in the ’60s, in an era when women were only allowed to be kooky in the vein of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, Rivers was laying the ground for aggressive, confrontational banter and post-Freudian personal analysis in the Woody Allen tradition. Like the women who came right before her, such as Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller, Rivers helped pave the way for a whole generation of women standup comics to stand toe-to-toe with men. Prior to Rivers, women performers rarely, if ever, discussed sex; her comedy was marked with self-deprecating, even humiliating references to her sexuality. She got away with it with what impresario Ed Sullivan characterized as a “quality of warmth.”

Her life was also marked by the tragedy of her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg’s, 1987 suicide, which was played out in the media, especially since the foibles of her relationship with Rosenberg had been so much a part of her comedy routine.

In 2009, she was roasted on Comedy Central (Kathy Griffin intro-ed her as “a legendary bitch”), and the next year, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s 2010 documentary on Rivers, “A Piece of Work,” received excellent reviews and did solid business.

A popular guest star and host throughout the 2000s, Rivers returned to “Hollywood Squares,” where she had been the center square from 1986-89, for another stint from 1999-2004. She guested on talkshows, including multiple appearances on “The View,” “Live With Regis and Kelly” and “Rachael Ray,” but also showed up in a 2006 episode of “Boston Legal” and a 2011 episode of “Louie” as herself and was the winner of “Celebrity Apprentice 2” in 2009. Rivers and her daughter starred in the reality/improv comedy show “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” for WE TV in 2011.

The earthy comedian seemed perfectly matched as a guest on Howard Stern’s radio show (“She is a frequent, even revered guest, someone who comes in regularly and always kills,” the Jewish Journal wrote in a 2010 article entitled “Is Howard Stern the Son Joan Rivers Never Had?”).

Showbiz success did not come easily for Joan Molinsky, who was born in Brooklyn. She studied English and social anthropology at Connecticut College for Women and Barnard, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1954, and became a fashion coordinator at Bonds, a retail clothing chain. But after a few years, the roar of the greasepaint became increasingly louder, and Rivers took temporary work to finance her free gigs in small Greenwich Village clubs, then played strip joints, low-rent Catskills resorts and almost anyplace else that would have her.

After a stint with Chicago’s Second City troupe, Rivers returned to New York and, performing in clubs like the Village Vanguard and the Showplace, she began to model her self-deprecating persona on the confessional elements of comics like Lenny Bruce.

Rivers worked briefly as a writer for “Candid Camera” and also wrote material for Diller, Bob Newhart, Phil Foster, Zsa Zsa Gabor and even Topo Gigio, the mouse puppet on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” By the mid-’60s, she was a regular at popular clubs such as the Bon Soir, the Duplex and Upstairs at the Downstairs.

But it was her many appearances on “The Tonight Show” that really got her career going; eventually, she was named permanent replacement host for Johnny Carson. The visibility ensured her engagements in many of the nation’s top clubs, including Chicago’s Mister Kelley’s, the Hungry I in San Francisco and Basin Street East in New York.

She began recording comedy albums such as “Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories” (for Warner Bros. Records) and later branched out into writing popular bestselling books. In 1965, she married her second husband, Rosenberg, who became her regular producer and manager.

Except for a brief appearance in the Burt Lancaster film “The Swimmer” and a stint penning the 1973 TV movie “The Girl Most Likely To,” starring Stockard Channing, Rivers mainly kept to television and live appearances, where her spontaneity and repartee were seen to their fullest advantage. In 1968 she began hosting a half-hour morning program, “That Show,” and the following year she graduated to Vegas, making her debut at the Riviera Hotel. She was soon under contract at the MGM Grand.

She wrote, directed and appeared in 1978’s “Rabbit Test,” a film about a man (Billy Crystal) who becomes pregnant. The pic laid a major egg and effectively scuttled her film career, though she would later make appearances in films such as “Spaceballs” and “Serial Mom” and did voicework for movies including “Look Who’s Talking” and “Shrek 2.” She cameo’d in 2011’s “The Smurfs.”

For a few years Rivers wrote a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune, and her first bestseller, “Having a Baby Can Be a Scream,” sold more than 1.5 million copies in hardcover alone. Through the early ’80s, Rivers’ popularity peaked as she embarked on national comedy tours and released successful albums like “What Becomes a Semi-legend Most?,” which sold more than a half million copies. Her 1984 tome “The Life and Times of Heidi Abromowitz” was another bestseller and led to a cable special and six specials on the BBC.

A setback in her career came in 1986, when the fledgling Fox network lured Rivers into her own TV talkshow, “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” — a slap in the face to her longtime ally Carson that effectively ended their friendship. Her problems were exacerbated by the erratic behavior of her husband, who’d had a heart attack in 1984 and was on various medications. He was banned from the set of the show, which eventually led to a confrontation and the show’s cancellation. Shortly thereafter, on a business trip to Philadelphia, Rosenberg took his own life.

The devastated Rivers went into seclusion for a time, but bounced back in 1989 with a new syndicated daytime talkshow, for which she received several Emmys. In 1994, she and Melissa starred as themselves in a highly rated TV movie, “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.”

Starting in 1995, Rivers and Melissa were a regular fixture on E! Channel as hosts of awards ceremonies arrivals (the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and others). Later they moved to the TV Guide Channel, where they continued such duties. An outgrowth of these efforts was the E! series “Fashion Police,” which starred Rivers, among others, and was produced by Melissa.

E! and parent company NBCUniversal said in statement that they “send our deepest condolences to Melissa, Cooper and her entire extended family on this incredibly sad day.”

“For decades Joan has made people laugh, shattered glass ceilings and revolutionized comedy,” the statement continued. “She was unapologetic and fiercely dedicated to entertaining all of us and has left an indelible mark on the people that worked with her and on her legions of fans. She’s been a much beloved member of the E! family for over 20 years and the world is less funny without her in it. Today our hearts are heavy knowing Joan will not be bounding through the doors.”

Rivers appeared in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” in 1988 and later returned to Broadway in “Sally Marr … and Her Escorts,” which she co-penned, in 1994, drawing a Tony nomination for actress in a play.

In 2008, autobiographical stage effort “Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress,” starring the comedienne and a few others, played the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and London’s Leicester Square Theater, but critical response in London sunk the show’s prospects for Broadway.

Among her many books are such autobiographical accounts as “Enter Talking,” “Still Talking,” “Bouncing Back” and “Don’t Count the Candles: Just Keep the Fire Lit!”

In addition to her daughter, survivors include a grandson, Cooper. Her sister Barbara died in 2013 at 82.

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  1. Beverly Kettler says:

    Joan’s contribution to the world…humor combined with life’s truths… touched home because she was truthful as well as funny. I, too, came from Brooklyn and am proud that I felt a common bond in that way.
    Rest in peace, Joan. Only a few days and you are missed already. Beverly

  2. jack says:

    good ridance

  3. The ANGELS in heaven are rolling with laughter….lucky ANGELS.

  4. Sandpiper says:

    This funny girl was a real mensch. <3

  5. Ralph says:

    I never found her to be funny at all. But I guess if mean, tasteless and rude is your thing, she was hysterical. Stop talking about her being such a great comedian, she mocked and made fun of everyone. Cruel, cruel, cruel. I’m not at all sad she’s gone.

  6. Jacques Strappe says:

    Plastic doesn’t decompose so I suspect all of Ms Rivers many pieces will be resting somewhere, forever intact

  7. mavellous chilufya says:

    Rest in enternal peace Joan Rivers

  8. fatmamohamed89 says:

    iam not sad at all ian not going even say r.i.p never she didnt want peace

  9. “Hey there Martha…you must have not like the comedian actress name Joan rivers though and that is not nice to say that to Joan Rivers the comedian actress who had just passed away and died at the age of 81 because she couldn’t breathe to herself no more during her plastic surgery at the hospital and she ain’t a witch to herself though either so stop calling her a witch ok and every other actress and her own friends and friendly and especially her own kids and also her own husband still loved her very much and they are always the greatest comedian actress that makes everyone laugh and put their own happy smiling face too also so I think she was a very generous and nice actress along the way when she was on the television doing some interview with CNN Larry King Live and on the Today’s show live and doing her own Television live show with the other actors and actress as well so god bless Joan Rivers and she may rest in peace as well with god and Jesus and also the heavenly lovely two little angels up above the sky ok bye!!”

  10. Ivan says:

    Joan did open many doors for women in comedy. Although personally, I never found her brand of mean spirited ‘humour’ at other people’s expense, to be very funny.

  11. khan says:

    Inna lillahi wa inallah-e-raji’oon

  12. Michele says:

    I am saddened by the loss of Ms. Rivers. But, I know somewhere she is making a bunch of angels laugh. That’s what she did best! She will be missed that’s for sure. I hope that god brings peace to Melissa and Cooper and heals there hearts quickly. Only to leave fond memories behind that will make you smile, giggle and laugh!

  13. bobo-vieri says:

    Who’s this? Never herd of her. She looks pretty plastic and unnatural.

  14. Corriea says:

    9/05/14 4:01a Variety Joan Rivers Carmel Dagan Pat Saperstein
    Joan Rivers was Not Funny! She was Mean and Cruel to many people and she was ignorant, she had no real information, she just made it up. She spent a lifetime remaking a body that was Soulless and Lifeless. No matter what she did to ” Improve” her appearance she could never hide behind a very fake, plastic inhuman appearance that covered up a Hollow Shell of an Non-Personl.

    • Jeff in NY says:

      Exactly, thank you. There was nothing likeable about this lady. She was mean and nasty. I could not stand her.

      • Corriea says:

        9/07/14 12:34a Variety Joan Rivers
        Jeff in NY: Joan Rivers had always attacked attractive Actors who were far more Real than she, it was Pure Jealousy and Spitefulness.

  15. V says:

    Mmmm. Nope. Not missing her. Not now, not ever. The only thing I felt for Mrs Rivers is pity that karma came around to bite on her buttocks, after she said that Palestinian civilians; who are actually pretty oppressed if you ask me, thanks to wait, who? oh right the israel government; deserved to die. I guess karma bitch-slapped her so hard for that statement, oh, yes. And in a way, I also pity her for when she faced her Creator what will she tell Him? What would she say to the souls of the dead Palestinians? That the statement was a joke? That thousands of human lives extinguished by a rabid country is not worth the support? I don’t think that’ll buy her way out of hell, you know. Let’s face the fact here. More than three quarters of the human population aren’t gonna miss her in the slightest. Including me.

    • ada noch says:

      you are soo right,,, very mean and racist woman, she was very hateful and was not funny at all, death proved her wrong and that she would not live for ever hurting others in the name of comedy. she was so vain and plastic, soul less and ugly with a shit nose. with all her money, wealth and so called fame she is unable to control. so people be careful how you mouth every one not like you.riot in hell

      • Ada, and “v”sorry this is not karma,when your bless to live decades,healthy without 1 illness idiot,and ur rich,successful hard worker from new york as joan rivers was. and IS ALWAYS in life and while up in heaven forever,unlike YOU,will be remembered by a world of many who adore/love her and knew she was far from stingy,not greedy,no racist at all. Shows how much u know. now get back under your broken life,hater jealous life,and continue in life to spell badly as your doing on the internet,can’t even spell ada noch, V, few others here,but got the nerve to try to diss joan.can’t happen troll,sorry.99% are great commentary on here,and proven unlike YOU she will be remembered.RIP JOAN we love you adios para

    • Tiff says:

      I happen to agree with you about JR and that horrible statement she made, and that she had then and has now a free pass from the news biz after saying that.
      What it means, of course, is that all humans can fall into primitive tribal divisions and simply hate to the death, their competitors whom they have wronged and who have wronged them back. This is ancient in human history.
      I don’t hate her for it, and it doesn’t define her whole life, but it is fair to say: You too, so you too fell… into that ancient human way.

  16. Dude says:

    Finally she died, goes along with the cruel comment of the palestinian people. Nobody is mortal, every soul is worth to live. God indeed fair, now she will the creator who will judge what she claim. Now the palestinian won, and she root in cemetary.

  17. Tania Vasquez says:

    A lot of smut and fart jokes to go along with the neurotic Freudian projection. A grande dame? J’ai eu my ration de.merde ce soir. Totie Fields was funny. And brave. And, probably a nice.person. Joan Rivers jokes about the President.and First.Lady were borderline racist. Her cracks about the Palestinians were as funny as the Holocaust.

  18. Robbie McQuade says:

    It was sad to hear about Joan Rivers. She was ballsy, irreverent and fearless. She made us laugh by using her own foibles to make our own pale in comparison. She was the last of the grande old dames. She is simply irreplaceable and will be missed. Not only by the show biz world but by every common person who laughed out loud and sometimes cringed at her humour. We loved her in life and will love her in death. We can all honour her passing by asking “can we talk?” and make someone laugh.

  19. alanna says:

    Thursday Sept 4, 2014

    To melissa rivers,

    My condolences to you melissa river. I’m a single mom like you that since I was a little girl your mother made me laugh, she had a very special soul that was shown to her many fans and have watch a talented jewish women prove that anything is possible in life is to make people laugh and she did.

    May god be good in remembering a great women who was full of energy and laugher.

    My condolences a fan of joan river from toronto.

  20. Raunchy? Raunchy is Kathy Griffith. This lady had FAST WIT and made everyone laugh for 40 yrs.

  21. Roberta Lipman says:

    I feel like I’ve lost a family member,,,,,the lovable aunt who drives you crazy and miss like crazy when it’s over. Will miss you forever Joan. Wish you were in my life!! If only this were a joke. :(

  22. marie says:

    May u find peace mellisa..ur mothet is watching over you now and alwsys will..although she will stay with you to help u guide ur journey..peace..and hope joan will laugh throuh you…m…

  23. TV101 says:

    Joan’s passing is sad. Somehow, she would have found a joke in this. I don’t know how but she would have! I am saddened this woman who made me laugh out of school so many times at things I knew shouldn’t be funny… but they were… is no longer with us. I think we were lucky to experienced this whit and quick mind. For those mourning how quickly she left us I say this: she taped her show on Tuesday, she did a standup performance on Wednesday – the woman worked and was happy well into her 80’s and stopped working for one week from last Thursday to this Thursday. Go make God laugh in Heaven Joan. She cared for people, made millions smile and laugh — she earned her pass.
    Thanks for the laughs Joan.

    • Tania Vasquez says:

      This time the joke’s on her. Celebrating the slaughter of 586 children an incrementally genocidal concentration camp is proof that she lacked humanity, had no empathy..If you can’t see that, you’re in denial. Not everybody agrees on who’s funny and who isn’t. But, this notion that anything’s good for a laugh only works if you can take it as well as Joan walked away from.her CNN interview with Frederika Whitfield who was being.nice to her, just not laying on the love. Joan Rivers I’m sure would not find her death this way.amusing. Other people’s deaths, Palrstinian childrens deaths amused her. If you thought those.jokes were funny, how can you begrudge those who.thought she was unfunny, neurotic, and.needlessly cruel.the joy and.laughtet we’re taking in her demise?

  24. A says:

    In Joan’s very own words “You’re dead. You deserve to be dead!”. Karma much?

  25. Deena A Sharp says:

    I loved Joan Rivers. Her book “Bounced Back’ really helped me when my husband died at the age of 34. My heart goes out to Melissa and her son. I am praying for them.

  26. Tania Vasquez says:

    Believe it or not, Julie a lot of people were upset with her awful comments about the Palestinians, 586 children were killed. Variety’s obit above says a lot of people feel she crossed a line with those comments. Part of the story.of her death is the sour taste she left in many many people’s mouths. I wasn’t thrilled when she called Michelle Obama a “tranny”, but the Palestinian stuff? My.God, you can be supportive of Israel without being as heartless and cruel as she was.

  27. (I think the “Comments are moderated.” comment needs editing.)

  28. Brenda says:

    May you rest in peace, and your family remember they have your grand memories, they will live on Iin your hearts forever, she won’t be forgotten!

  29. She was very funny, charismatic, unapologetic.
    May she rest in peace.
    In this dark world, her laughter was needed.
    Thank you for making us laugh, Joan!

  30. Oh shut up! No one cares about what you are spouting, it’s about her life right now not Palestine you goof! Chata!

  31. david beresford says:

    Thinking of you melissa an your family xxx

  32. frank kelly says:

    i had ms. River’s first album memorized, it was so funny ( ” The Next – To – Last Joan Rivers Album ” ). look up the bit where she is caught in the 8 item line with an extra item. hilarious. and one of my favorite lines of all time. when dealing with a hostile audience, she said ” I wish for you what you wish for me. EXACTLY ! “

  33. david beresford says:

    God bless the queen of comedian’s you was a fab lady an a great icon, love to your daughter as this is the most sadiest time of her life saying good bye to her mother thinking of you,as i no what she is going through xxx

  34. Wilma says:

    RIP Joan, we all love you I enjoyed your jokes of dissing people and I loved your laugh, God bless this lady.

  35. Ben Robinson says:

    Thanks Joan. It was a pleasure working with you. I’ll burn some insence when I get home to aid your spirit to your next blissful gig.

  36. Geri says:

    RIP Joan. You were one of a kind!

    • Someguy says:

      Yes it’s very scary to think these doctors are here to do routine surgery that shouldn’t kill you and than you end up dead,I’d sue the hospital unacceptable I had a grandfather die in hospital when he should of been fine it’s outrageous!

  37. Terrific work on the obit but please show me on any map where ‘Palestine’ might be?

  38. Daniel says:

    The one person in the entertainment world that just may have been funnier than Robin Williams.

    Thoughts are with her daughter and grandson. Think on the memories less than her absence.

  39. Rod says:

    “Except for a brief appearance in the Burt Lancaster film “The Swimmer” and a stint penning the 1973 TV movie “The Girl Most Likely To,” starring Stockard Channing, Rivers mainly kept to television and live appearances”

    Learn to use IMDB. Space Balls, Muppets Take Manhatten, Iron Man 3 …. there s are more.

  40. T says:

    yep, don’t care

  41. sean says:

    RIP JOan. Give ’em hell in heaven !

  42. Eric says:

    no obit on joan rivers would be complete without mentioning her affinity for plastic surgery…

  43. Amy says:

    A very sad loss. interestingly, I had the TVGuide Channel on this past weekend, and they were running reruns of The Love Boat. one of the episodes had Joan Rivers starring in it. Was very fun to watch. Can’t imagine Fashion Police without her.

  44. Hugh Hefner says:

    Joan River’s has been an inspiration to all of us. The worlds candle will be a little dimmer from now on.

  45. Tony says:

    As a Brooklyn born former garment center manufacturer I was always a big fan . Joan you made us laugh and proved that anything is possible when you want it bad enough.
    We’re going to miss your humor , especially when we need to laugh more than ever !!!!!’
    Rest in peace knowing you were a great mom , grandmother and pioneer for woman in comedy and other walks of life.
    We love you always.

  46. Foreign Correspondent says:

    “Occasional host” of The Tonight Show? She was the most frequent guest host, and Johnny named her the permanent guest host in the ’80s.

  47. I’m in tears for her and her family. I loved her. I hope she gives them all what for in heaven.

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