Joan Rivers, a pioneering female stand-up comic and the queen of “Can We Talk?” gossip, has died. She was 81, her daughter, Melissa Rivers, said Thursday.
Rivers was undergoing surgery on her vocal cords at a clinic in New York City on Aug. 28 when she stopped breathing and had to be transported to Mount Sinai Hospital. Melissa Rivers and her 13-year-old grandson, Cooper, who lived with her in Malibu, California, rushed to her bedside.
“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” Melissa Rivers said in a statement. “Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”
Raspy-voiced and brassy, Rivers was always self-deprecating, foul-mouthed and politically incorrect. A master of reinvention, she endured in show business because of her tenacious work ethic — which she credited to her “immigrant mentality.”
Comedians typically push the edge of the envelope, but Rivers proved time and again that she didn’t even see the envelope. To her fans, she was as shocking as she was endearing.
“The way she is funny, she tells the truth according to herself,” the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 2010. “She hates some people. She has political opinions. Her observations are so merciless and her timing so precise that even if you like that person, you laugh. She is a sadist of comedy, unafraid to be cruel — even too cruel.”
No topic was off limits. From Elizabeth Taylor to Queen Elizabeth to even Anne Frank, Rivers loved going after public figures.
“I mock everybody, regardless of race, creed or color,” she told the Toronto Star in July. “Every joke I make, no matter how tasteless, is there to draw attention to something I really care about.”
Four years earlier, she explained her no-holds-barred approach to The Times of London: “If you laugh at something, you shrink the dragon.”
Her favorite punching bag, though, was always herself. “My mother used to look at me and say, ‘Looks don’t count. Now, get out of my sight, you big lump.'”
Rivers was the first to mock her facelifts and other plastic surgeries. Her grandson “calls me Nana New Face. And when he was younger, the joke was he had never seen me without bandages. So one time, we saw ‘The Return of the Mummy,’ and he ran to the TV set and he went, ‘Grandma, Grandma.'”
A famously hard-working dynamo, she was nowhere near close to retirement. She worked the red carpets for the MTV Video Music Awards and the Emmys near the end of August and had been scheduled to appear at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, on Aug. 29. She co-hosted “Fashion Police,” starred in WE TV’s reality series “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” and hosted two online shows, “In Bed With Joan” and “Drunken Celebrity Phone Calls.”
A life-long fashionista, Rivers and her daughter began doing the awards red carpet circuit in the mid-90s on shows for E! and later TV Guide. Her love of all things couture led her to coin another well-known catch phrase: “Who are you wearing?”
The comedian also embraced social media, and that, of course, brought its share of controversy. In 2012, Rivers used Twitter to tell R&B star Rihanna not to go back to Chris Brown after a domestic violence incident, in her own special way: “Rihanna confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it’s MY turn to slap her.”
“I love the Internet, and I love that you can say whatever you want,” Rivers told The Boston Globe last November.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933, to Russian immigrants, Rivers spent her childhood in Brooklyn until her parents moved to upper-class Westchester County, New York. She believed she inherited her sense of humor from her father, who was a doctor. Her mother was a housewife.
“I’m not sure if I was happy. I was the class wit, not the class clown — an important difference,” she told The Times of London in 2010.
Because her father threatened to have her committed for being an actress, Rivers studied at Connecticut College and Barnard College, where she earned degrees in English and anthropology. Although her true love remained performing in theater, she worked in retail and fashion after college.
After her first marriage to James Sanger ended in annulment after six months, Rivers decided to become a serious actress. She studied drama and appeared in a few plays, but she was advised by an agent that she should be in comedy. He also advised her to change her name.
Rivers landed her big break in 1965 on “The Tonight Show: Starring Johnny Carson” and released her first comedy album shortly thereafter, “Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories.” In 1983, after frequent appearances on Carson’s “Tonight Show,” she was designated the first permanent guest host, a prestigious role that broke down barriers for women in comedy.
Married to British TV producer Edgar Rosenberg at the time — after a four-day courtship — Rivers continued to find humor in her own life, making fun of herself as a “fat kid” or a flat-chested housewife. Eventually she landed her own vehicle, “The Show With Joan Rivers,” in 1968 — the same year her only daughter, Melissa, was born. The show lasted two years.
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