The Kathy Griffin we all know today would not have existed as such without her. Same goes for hundreds of other comedians, male and female, straight and gay.
The multiple hours of red carpet TV coverage devoted to celebrity gabbing and fashion gawking at every awards show would not exist as such today without her.
And most bafflingly, we would never have had a woman hosting a late-night network TV talk show if not for her.
Joan Rivers died today, a week after suffering cardiac arrest during a vocal cord surgery in a clinic in New York City’s Upper East Side. The celebrated, iconic, and outspoken comedian was 81.
Her daughter, Melissa, announced her passing: “It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers. She passed peacefully at 1:17pm surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided my mother. Cooper and I have found ourselves humbled by the outpouring of love, support, and prayers we have received from around the world. They have been heard and appreciated. 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.”
“Can we talk?”
Rivers, born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn on June 8, 1933, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College in NYC in 1954. She was a Rockefeller Center tour guide, a proofreader and a consultant before diving into a career in comedy. Her first agent, Tony Rivers, suggested she change her last name. So she adopted his.
One of her first breaks was in a play, “Driftwood,” in which she played a lesbian with a crush on a woman played by a-then-also-unknown Barbra Streisand.
In comedy, Rivers began not as a stand-up but as a member of ensembles. Rivers was an early member of The Second City in Chicago, joining the Mainstage in 1961. “I was never fully happy at Second City, but it made my whole career,” Rivers had said. “I found out for the first time what I thought was funny, other people thought was funny also.”
She also was one-third of an act called Jim, Jake and Joan — with Jim Connell and Jake Holmes. In a 1968 interview with TV Guide, Rivers said of her time in a trio: “Look. That act was contrived and I was frustrated. When I left, I had no money, no agent, no manager. I had to start from scratch. But there was no joy ever in that act.”
So Rivers honed her own act in Greenwich Village, performing at The Bitter End and other venues with Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, David Brenner, Dick Cavett, Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield. Singers such as Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand were gigging there, too. “Everyone was down there!” Rivers recalled in a July interview with SiriusXM. “They would let us all in to see (Bruce). 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 said. “I was able to stand up there and talk about having an affair with a married professor. Which was shocking at the time!”
She also wrote jokes for others, most memorably Phyllis Diller and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Another early break came writing for the original Candid Camera in 1964. A year later, audiences across America got to see Rivers’ solo work via stand-up appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. From the former, check out this clip of Joan in 1967:
The latter catapulted her into our collective comedy consciousness.
Here she is with the man who most made her career and also changed it forever, Johnny Carson.
In 1972, Rivers described Carson to a group of UCLA students this way: “I have such respect for Johnny Carson. Everyone puts him down. They think he’s just — it’s very tough to be up there and be charming, and to be witty, and to ask them questions and make it look like you don’t have notes. Because people go on that show and they freeze. There is such tension backstage. I can’t tell you. It’s a very hard show to do as a performer.”
Rivers not only was a frequent guest but became the permanent guest host when Carson took the night or week off. Here she is interviewing Lucille Ball in 1984.
And here, Carson and Rivers discuss their relationship during a 1986 appearance promoting her book, “Enter Talking.”
Rivers became the first and still only woman to host a late-night talk show on network TV when she joined the fledgling FOX to front The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.
That huge leap forward for Rivers also created a schism between her and Carson that lasted until Johnny died — Rivers didn’t even appear on The Tonight Show again until Jimmy Fallon took it over this spring. The fallout from her FOX late-night effort also brought more heartbreak as her husband, manager and producer Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide in 1987.
But Rivers plowed on.
She found a new career by creating and hosting E!’s Live From the Red Carpet in 1996, which has become a TV staple of awards season unto itself for viewers around the world. From that, Rivers spun off into joking about the red-carpet stylings and faux-pas with her show Fashion Police. Rivers taped a special VMAs and Emmys edition of Fashion Police just last Tuesday — two days before undergoing her fatal surgery. E!’s producers already had announced this morning they were postponing production; and the show had gone on for a year-and-a-half despite a writers’ strike that has yet to be settled. Nevertheless, Rivers was firing zingers at every celebrity throughout last week’s telecast.
Over the past two decades, Rivers also was infamous and the butt of many jokes for her multiple plastic surgeries.
She proved she could take the jokes as well as she dished them out, playing herself in a 2004 episode of FX’s Nip/Tuck.
And when it looked like all Rivers had were her E! gigs to go on, a 2010 documentary about her, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (available on Netflix), proved she still had much in the tank.
She took the positive momentum from there to NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, which she won. And then onto WEtv and a reality docu-series with her daughter, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best? which ran four seasons. It also spawned a webseries, “In Bed With Joan.”
She continued to write books, too; her 12th, Diary of a Mad Diva, came out this July and landed on the New York Times Bestseller list.
But still, she continued to pursue elective surgeries. In the second-season premiere of Joan and Melissa, “Skintervention,” family and friends try to dissuade her from it. But at the 23-minute mark, Joan Rivers is signing the paperwork and prepping for more work done to her face.
“If anything happens, Melissa. No. But I’m no chicken. I’ve had a great life. I’ve had an amazing life. If I died this morning, nobody would say, ‘So young.’ You’re a terrific person. Cooper’s fine. You’re all fine. I’ve had an amazing life. If it ended right now — (snaps fingers) — amazing life! And you’ve been wonderful. We’ve had a great ride together.”
“It’s not about me. It’s about you. And if something happens, things are fine. And life is fine. And life is so much fun. It’s one big movie!”
She also delivered this monologue to Louis C.K. in a 2012 of his FX series, Louie, about why comedians keep performing.
Joan Rivers continued to crack jokes until the night before her surgery, and hardly ever apologized for it.
There’s nobody like Joan Rivers. She will be missed.
The uncensored Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers, taped July 26, 2009, and originally broadcast Aug. 9, 2009. Featuring roastmaster Kathy Griffin, plus Carl Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, Mario Cantone, Whitney Cummings, Tom Arnold, Brad Garrett, Robin Quivers, Greg Giraldo, Jeff Ross, a pre-taped bit from Donald Trump and an appearance by Melissa Rivers.
“I love funerals! To me a funeral is just a red carpet show for dead people. It’s a chance for mourners from all walks of life to accessorize basic black, and to make a fashion statement that is bold enough to draw attention away from the bereaved but subtle enough so that no one knows that it’s happening. And, it’s a great way to have quiet fun.” A few sentences later she continued: “When I die (and yes, Melissa, that day will come; and yes, Melissa, everything is in your name), I want my funeral to be a huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action…I want Craft services, I want paparazzi and I want publicists making a scene! I want it to be Hollywood all the way. I don’t want some rabbi rambling on; I want Meryl Streep crying, in five different accents. I don’t want a eulogy; I want Bobby Vinton to pick up my head and sing “Mr. Lonely.” I want to look gorgeous, better dead than I do alive. I want to be buried in a Valentino gown and I want Harry Winston to make me a toe tag. And I want a wind machine so that even in the casket my hair is blowing just like Beyoncé’s.”
Her funeral will take place on Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.
“It is a terribly sad day for all of us,” Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson told ABC News in a statement. “We mourn with her family, friends and all those millions to whom she brought laughter and joy.”