Almost every comedian I know shared a photo and/or an anecdote about Joan Rivers tonight in the wake of her death at 81, a week after she suffered cardiac arrest and stopped breathing during throat surgery. (Read the obituary of Joan Rivers here) Looking at all of these photos shows just how many lives and careers Rivers had touched just in the past 10 years. How many other comedians have done that, let alone after turning 70?!
But considering Rivers legendary and now mythic status as still the only woman to host a network TV show in late-night — some 27 years after her Late Show with Joan Rivers left the airwaves on FOX — it’s worth noting, too, how the current crop of white men in late-night TV stopped what they were doing to praise and honor her.
Jimmy Fallon, who welcomed Rivers back to The Tonight Show this spring, ending a 28-year ban enacted by a resentful Johnny Carson when Rivers became his competition in 1986, offered up a few words from behind his desk. “She is fearless,” he said. “She would just come out and say what you were thinking but you wouldn’t say it. You would stop, but she wouldn’t stop. She would just say it.” He called her “a class act” who could take a joke just as well as she would dish it out.
So, too, did David Letterman. Letterman had staged a walkout on Rivers when she guested on his Late Show in July, in a nod to Rivers walking out on a CNN interview this summer. Tonight, he noted that 81 didn’t seem that old “when you’re 67.”
“Here’s a woman, a real pioneer for other women looking for careers in stand-up comedy,” Letterman said of Rivers. “And talk about guts — she would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just where you would have to swallow pretty hard … but it was hilarious … the force of her comedy was overpowering.”
Jimmy Kimmel spoke about Rivers in his monologue, and also had his ex-girlfriend Sarah Silverman as his first guest. Earlier Thursday, Silverman had Tweeted this about Rivers:
— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) September 4, 2014
In his monologue, Kimmel said: “Besides being a pioneer for women in comedy, for everyone in comedy, Joan was a very lucky person because she loved her job so much, she never wanted to stop. And she didn’t have to stop because she was still great at it.”
Over on TBS, Conan O’Brien and Chris Hardwick shared their stories about Rivers. Hardwick had visited The Tonight Show as a child and seen Rivers with Carson; in adulthood, Hardwick and Rivers became friends. O’Brien recalled watching Rivers guest host for Carson and said anytime she did so, it was an event.
Seth Meyers recently enjoyed having Rivers as one of his Late Night guests in July, when she was promoting her latest book. Tonight, Meyers offered a joke that he thought Rivers would have approved.
Craig Ferguson, meanwhile, said: “We lost Joan Rivers today, one of the all-time greats. Yes, I know, it’s terribly sad. I just hope that when Joan meets the man upstairs he is wearing something she can insult.”
On cable, Jon Stewart offered his Moment of Zen to Rivers. But before that, Stewart said: “There are very few people in my business who you could saw are actually groundbreaking talents. Joan Rivers was one of them. Unfortunately, she has passed away. We send the very best to her family.”
Many of the comedians inspired by or mentored by Rivers also took to Twitter to pay tribute. Among them:
— Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) September 4, 2014
Joan Rivers will always be a pioneer. She paved the way for a lot of comedians. I’m very sad she’s gone. pic.twitter.com/i1uE9fyHMh
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) September 4, 2014
My fav joke in "A Piece if Work" looking at the wine's vintage and saying "May" Relevant and funny all the way to the end. Thank you Joan.
— Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) September 4, 2014
— Judy Gold (@JewdyGold) September 4, 2014
SEE "A PIECE OF WORK" if you haven't and see why this person is a legend LEGEND rest in peace Joan Rivers absolute trailblazer and hero
— Chelsea Peretti (@ChelseaVPeretti) September 4, 2014
I really hate you right now God. I love you Joan. Thank you for being in my life this year. Look fabulous in the beyond.
— Jen Kirkman (@JenKirkman) September 4, 2014
Here are a few written memorials worth your time and reading education.
We called her a throwback when she was actually ahead of her time. We used the internet to call her mean. Everybody made fun of her face, as though any of us were ever given a choice to look like Angelina Jolie at birth but just checked the wrong box. She took jobs that weren’t cool, and her only reward was more work. She was never — EVER — given her due.
I adored writing for her because she was so much ballsier than anyone I’d ever met and so ready to say things I wish I had the brass ovaries to say. I got the chance to be more outspoken through her. I know a lot of people found her humor to be mean. Could she be wildly politically incorrect? Sure. But I think she valued a comedian’s right to take a risk and let the audience decide whether or not it had paid off. And she took the piss out of herself harder than anyone else. You have to be pretty self-deprecating to do a bit about how you mistook your fallen vulva for a gray bunny slipper.
Nell Scovell wrote a piece in Vanity Fair about how Rivers redefined comedy for women and inspired the next generation of female comedians. Scovell found that Silverman’s advice — “Be undeniable” — applied so aptly to Rivers.
“I can’t think of a better description for Rivers. She could not—and would not—be denied. She wanted to be seen and heard and she found a way through writing sketches for Topo Gigio, through guest hosting on The Tonight Show, through hosting her own show on Fox, through writing movies (like the awesome Girl Most Likely To), through selling earrings, through writing books, through skewering fashion, and through what she did best of all—standing on a stage with nothing but a mike and her mouth.”
Hannah Rosin, founder of Slate.com’s Double X, recalled the impact Rivers had on both her and her mother, making jokes about anything and anyone, in language that in no uncertain terms could be outright mean, filthy and sometimes both.
“She could have been remembered as the woman whom Johnny Carson rejected, or whose husband killed himself, or who turned herself into a plastic surgery freak show. Instead, she will be remembered as the woman who, no matter what, always found the punch line.”
And Hank Stuever, TV critic for The Washington Post, wrote an essay headlined: “Loving Joan Rivers meant never having to say you’re sorry.” Rivers would never apologize, never go away, never shrink from the spotlight.
“Oh, Jooooannn, people were always saying — on her fashion critique show, on her reality show, during her guest appearances on other people’s shows or from the back of the audience during her constant schedule of stand-up comedy shows. OMG, Joan. She had performed onstage the night before she went to a Manhattan doctor’s office last week for a throat procedure, during which she reportedly suffered cardiac arrest and never recovered. At that last show, there had to be at least one person in the audience who thought: I can’t believe she just said that.”
A true original. Love her or hate her, you couldn’t ignore her. Everyone else who does what she did is a pale imitator. And now, just like that, she’s gone.