Can we talk?
Whenever Joan Rivers asked that question, she wasn’t asking permission. Right up until the moment she died at age 81 on Sept. 4 in Manhattan, it was clear that she was going to talk, loudly and often, and you were going to listen.
One of the first truly transgressive female comedians, both on the stand-up circuit and as Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on The Tonight Show in the 1980s, she was famous for bringing her whip-smart, acid-tongued wit to any subject, no matter how off-limits. Rivers could tackle abortion, 9/11, or Hollywood’s most taboo topic—aging—as sharply as any male comic, but she was brave enough to save the most cutting jokes for herself, especially when it came to her extensive plastic surgery. (“My face has been tucked more times than a bed sheet at a Holiday Inn.”) She once observed, “I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, Rivers was reared in Brooklyn by Russian Jews, and later used her comedy-outsider status as a woman, a Jew, and a first-generation American to fuel some of her best punchlines. “I am every woman’s outrage about where they put us,” she once said. “We have no control. And that’s why I am screaming onstage.”
For years, she worked grubby comedy clubs while supporting herself with odd jobs, writing jokes for Phyllis Diller and Zsa Zsa Gabor and gags for Candid Camera. Her career finally took off during the 1980s on NBC’s Tonight Show, where she charmed Carson with her riffs on Elizabeth Taylor’s weight and the British royal family’s drama. Rivers became so popular with audiences that she eventually took over behind Carson’s desk every third week. By 1986, when Fox lured her away to go head-to-head against Carson in The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, she’d become the highest paid performer in Las Vegas.
Her luck changed drastically after she left NBC. Carson immediately announced that his protégée was dead to him, effectively banning her from late-night TV for the coming decades after Rivers and her husband, TV producer Edgar Rosenberg, were fired after only seven months on the job. Soon afterward, Rosenberg committed suicide, and Rivers fell into a deep depression. Still, through it all, she maintained that no subject was too painful to mine for material: She and her daughter, Melissa, played themselves in Tears and Laughter, an NBC movie about Rosenberg’s death written by TV writer Susan Rice (who had no connection to Rivers).
After spending the better part of the 1990s confined to the red carpet as the fashion-policing host of the Oscar pre-shows, she finally got a belated boost from the release of 2010’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The documentary dealt honestly with her legacy, delving into her fallout with Carson and her later financial troubles, but also the pioneering path she blazed for edgy female comics like Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman.
Even in her final years—when she won The Celebrity Apprentice, ruthlessly mocked herself as an old-lady has-been on a very funny episode of Louie, and tirelessly hosted E!’s weekly comedy-panel series Fashion Police, her humor came from telling the hard truth and telling it fast. In later years, she had a pillow embroidered with the phrase: “DON’T EXPECT PRAISE WITHOUT ENVY UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD.” Well, now’s the time for that last laugh.