Joan Rivers was bawdy, obnoxious, loud, sometimes crude, and always irreverent. Love her or hate her, no one can deny she was a true original. With her acerbic wit and signature New Yawker raspy voice, she pushed the boundaries of comedy like no other female comic before her or since, and opened doors for others like Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin.
The iconic comedienne, actress, writer, director and talk show host, who was also a bestselling author, passed away on September 4 in New York City at the age of 81. From her first appearance in 1965 on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, to her last stand-up gig the night before she went into cardiac arrest during a medical procedure, she joked about her mortality; she was a true original.
She became one of America’s first successful female stand-up comics at a time when comedy was mostly an all-boy network. Later she was the only woman ever chosen as Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on The Tonight Show.
Born into an upper middle-class Jewish family in Brooklyn – her physician father and stay-at-home mother never wanted their daughter to be in showbiz. To appease them, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard with a degree in English, then went out and did what she has always done best – entertained generations of fans with her wit.
Starting out in the seediest of New York clubs where she honed her comedic timing and her signature repertoire, she rose through the ranks to become an icon of American pop culture. No one was safe from her rants – not the Queen of England, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, doctors, feminists, old people, children, and least of all herself.
She wrote for The Ed Sullivan Show and Candid Camera; snagged a small, but great role opposite Burt Lancaster in the film, “The Swimmer”; appeared on Broadway; wrote and directed the movie Rabbit Test starring Billy Crystal; and appeared on a host of variety shows. She even earned a Daytime Emmy for her syndicated Joan Rivers Show. For her Broadway performance playing the mother of Lenny Bruce, she was nominated for Drama Desk and Tony awards.In recent years she was a star on the red carpet along with her daughter, Melissa, interviewing celebrities and using her now iconic catch phrase, “Who are you wearing?” which sent chills down the spines of many a Hollywood diva. No one was excluded from her caustic evaluations.
As the star of the E! show Fashion Police, nothing was sacred and even her co-hosts sometimes cringed and covered their faces at her off-the-wall remarks. In a statement released after her death, E! saluted Rivers: “For decades Joan has made people laugh, shattered glass ceilings and revolutionized comedy. She was unapologetic and fiercely dedicated to entertaining all of us…. The world is less funny without her in it. Today our hearts are heavy knowing Joan will not be bounding through the doors.”
As the author of 12 books, she was “uncensored and uninhibited” and her fans rushed out to buy her books, selling millions of copies, from her first, Having a Baby Can Be a Scream, to Diary of a Mad Diva, released this summer, Rivers never stopped working. When asked if she ever thought about retiring, she tartly replied, “And do what?”
In “Diary of a Mad Diva,” Rivers ironically talks about what her daughter should and should not do at her funeral:
- Make sure the guy who cuts the tombstone is a good speller
- Don’t break the news to my friends by singing, “A-tisket, A-tasket, Joan’s finally in a casket.”
- Be sure no one knows Melissa’s last words were, “Just sign this.”
- In order to make my cold-as-ice-WASP friends cry like the rest of the mourners, tell them we’ve run out of Wonder Bread.
“Death doesn’t scare me,” she wrote. “I just want to leave a legacy – something sexual would be good.”
In announcing her mother’s death, Melissa Rivers said, “My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh.”