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.
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.