‘Funny and fearless’, she will be remembered for her face lifts as much as for her incisive wit and acid put downs, Joan Rivers quite literally changed the face of female comedy.
Rivers died yesterday aged 81 having been one of the leading lights in stand-up comedy and late night entertainment for over 50 years. No topic was off limits and she exposed her audiences to the intricacies of her life – surgery, suicide, abortion, childbirth, eating disorders and more.
Controversial to the end, Rivers hosted a recording of Fashion Police about the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2014 MTV Movie Awards on the 26th August which turned out to be her last television appearance. Even the day before the routine throat operation during which she suffered a heart attack, she released her most recent podcast of In Bed with Joan. A day later she was in a medically-induced coma and she never regained consciousness.
Often perceived as insensitive and mining the lives of celebrities and public figures for laughs, her own life provided much of the material that became Rivers’ stock in comic trade. As a New Yorker she did for Jewish womanhood what Woody Allen has done for every insecure vertically challenged Jewish man. She even made jokes about the Holocaust, which although attracted criticism she explained that it was her way of reminding people to never forget the horror in which her husband list his entire family, proving that you have a right to make fun of what you have directly experienced.
In the 1950s after graduating with a BA in English Literature and Anthropology, Rivers worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Centre, a writer/proof-reader at an advertising agency and a fashion consultant. When she embarked on an acting career she changed her name from Molinski to Rivers and was performing in numerous New York comedy clubs by the early 1960s. She made her first television appearances as a guest on The Tonight Show along with host Jack Paar and went on to appear with the show’s new host Johnny Carson on February 17th 1965. This continued throughout the decade as well as appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and hosting several talk shows.
By the 1970s, Rivers was appearing on various television comedy and variety shows, and during the 1980s, Carson established Rivers as his regular guest host on The Tonight Show and she hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, on April 9, 1983. Continuing to do stand-up shows alongside her television appearances she became the first female comedian to ever perform at Carnegie Hall in February 1983 and later that year, her career was distinguished when An Audience With Joan Rivers was made and broadcast in the UK.
The loss of her long standing friendship with Carson, in 1986 followed when Fox Television Network gave Rivers a late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, making her a direct competitor. Carson learned of the show from Fox and not from Rivers herself and she later admitted that she should have asked for his blessing before taking the job. Rivers was subsequently banned from appearing on The Tonight Show and only briefly reappeared in February of this year during Jimmy Fallon’s first episode. Shortly after Carson's death in 2005, Rivers said that he never spoke to her again.
The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was marred by tragedy. When Rivers challenged Fox executives, who wanted to fire her husband Edgar Rosenberg as the show's producer, the network fired them both. On May 15 1987, three months later, Rosenberg committed suicide and Rivers blamed this on his "humiliation" by Fox. By 1989, she had another daytime TV talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, which ran for five years and won her a Daytime Emmy in 1990 for Outstanding Talk Show Host. In 1994, Rivers and daughter Melissa first hosted the E! Entertainment Television pre-awards show for the Golden Globe Awards. Beginning in 1995, they hosted the annual E! Entertainment Television pre-awards show for the Academy Awards.
In the UK Rivers appeared regularly on television shopping channel QVC, promoting her own line of jewellery under brand name "The Joan Rivers Collection" and often appeared as a guest on the panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats. She performed in the Royal Variety Show 2007 at the Liverpool Empire Theatre, with the Queen and Prince Philip present and in January 2008, Rivers became one of 20 hijackers to take control of the Big Brother house for one day in spin-off TV show Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack. She made two appearances on Live at the Apollo, once as a comedian and once as a guest host and also performed live at the Edinburgh Fringe. Rivers even survived Donald Trump’s comb over and went on to win Celebrity Apprentice in 2009 with daughter Melissa.
Rivers was famously unapologetic about her ribald and pithy humour and she could easily take what she handed out. A Comedy Roast aired in August 2009 on Comedy Central hosted by Kathy Griffin and featuring Tom Arnold, Carl Reiner, Whitney Cummings and many more, pulled her apart by her comedy high heels but the Rivers resolve always stayed firmly in place when the heat was on. Her resilience was legendary and on stage, as in life, she was one of the entertainment world’s greatest female warriors battling sexism on the edge of good taste and acceptability.
"I've learned to have absolutely no regrets about any jokes I've ever done,” said Rivers. “You can tune me out, you can click me off, it's OK. I am not going to bow to political correctness. But you do have to learn, if you want to be a satirist, you can't be part of the party."
Lynne Parker, Founder of Funny Women.