Obituary: Joan Rivers / Broke ground for female comics with caustic humor and as TV host

June 8, 1933 - Sept. 4, 2014

Joan Rivers, the raspy loudmouth who pounced on America’s obsessions with flab, face-lifts, body hair and other blemishes of neurotic life, including her own, in five decades of caustic comedy that propelled her from nightclubs to television to international stardom, died Thursday in New York City. She was 81.

Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, confirmed her death.

Ms. Rivers died at Mount Sinai Hospital in the borough of Manhattan, where she was taken Aug. 28 after reportedly losing consciousness while undergoing a procedure on her vocal cords at a doctor’s office. Doctors at the hospital placed her in a medically induced coma. On Tuesday, her daughter said she was on life support; on Wednesday, she said her mother had been moved out of intensive care.

The State Health Department is investigating the circumstances that led to her death, a state official said Thursday.

Ms. Rivers was one of America’s first successful female stand-up comics in an aggressive vein that had been almost exclusively the province of men, from Don Rickles to Lenny Bruce. And she was a role model and an inspiration for tough-talking comedians like Roseanne Barr and Sarah Silverman and countless others.

Vivacious even as a nipped-and-tucked octogenarian, flitting from coast to coast and stage to studio in a whirl of live and recorded shows, publicity stunts and cosmetic surgery appointments, Ms. Rivers evolved from a sassy, self-deprecating performer early in her career into a coarser assassin, slashing at celebrities and others with a rapier wit that some critics called comic genius in the bloodletting vein of Mr. Bruce. Others called it downright vicious. But if she turned the scowlers off, she left millions in stitches.

“Can we talk?” she demanded in her signature call to gossip and skewer — the brassy Jewish-American princess from the borough of Brooklyn and Larchmont, in suburban New York City’s Westchester County, leveling with the world.

She would take the stage in a demure black sheath and ladylike pearls, a tiny bouffant blonde with a genteel air of sorority decorum. Then she would stick her finger down her throat and regurgitate the dirt on the rich and famous, the stream-of-conscious take on national heroes and sacrosanct cultural idols.

A contemporary of Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, she began doing stand-up routines in nightclubs in the late 1950s, and broke through as a guest on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1965. Over the next two decades, she became a regular guest host on the Carson show, a Las Vegas headliner and a television star. In 1986, she hit the big time with a $10 million contract as host of the new Fox network’s weeknight entry, “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” competing directly with her old benefactor.

Then came a series of devastating professional and personal setbacks. She was shunned by Mr. Carson, who said she had never informed him of the Fox offer and who apparently considered her disloyal for accepting it. She insisted that it had had nothing to do with loyalty, and that Fox had wanted her because her ratings were higher and her demographics younger than his.

After less than a year on the air, she was fired by Fox when her ratings slumped. Her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, fell into depression after a heart attack and committed suicide in 1987. Ms. Rivers became estranged from her only child, Melissa. Bookings dried up, and her career seemed to be on the rocks.

But, struggling with grief, Ms. Rivers traveled for a time, then fell back on the resilience of laughter and revived her comedy career.

Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born in New York City on June 8, 1933, to Meyer and Beatrice Grushman Molinsky, immigrants from Russia. Her father, a doctor, did comic impersonations of patients. Her mother insisted on piano lessons and private schools for Joan and her sister, Barbara, who grew up in Brooklyn and Larchmont. Joan attended Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn, Connecticut College for Women and Barnard College in Manhattan, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1954 with a degree in English.

Dreaming of an acting career, she worked in the publicity department at Lord & Taylor and was a fashion coordinator for the Bond clothing stores. Her marriage to James Sanger, the son of the Bond stores’ merchandiser, was annulled after six months in the 1950s. She married Mr. Rosenberg in 1965. Melissa was her only child. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a grandson, Cooper.

Her parents refused to support her acting ambitions, and she struggled for years in office temp jobs while taking small parts off-off-Broadway. She became a stand-up comic to support her acting, working in grimy cafes and small clubs, and was fired often. But she liked comedy and was good at it. She developed fresh routines based on her experiences and observations, changed her name to Rivers and got a few breaks.

There were risks and reversals in her more aggressive style. Her appearance on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” also on NBC, gave her national exposure, but audiences and Mr. Paar himself were appalled at her off-color ethnic jokes. Far from a springboard to success, it was a career setback.

In the early ’60s, she joined the Chicago-based Second City troupe, whose improvisational approach, she said, reinforced her confidence, although she preferred stand-up solos to its ensemble work. She had many gigs in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and performed with a musical-comedy trio, Jim, Jake and Joan. She also wrote for CBS’s “Candid Camera,” and in 1966 began a series of appearances on CBS’s “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

She broke through on Mr. Carson’s show in 1965. They had an immediate rapport.

Her ratings as host sometimes surpassed Mr. Carson’s, and NBC signed her as the sole regular replacement during his eight or nine annual vacation weeks from 1983 to 1986. The national exposure made her a superstar.

Besides appearing in Hollywood films, she directed one: “Rabbit Test,” a 1978 comedy about the world’s first pregnant man, starring Billy Crystal, with Ms. Rivers in a cameo as a nurse. Critics hated it. But her volume of madcap fiction, “The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz” (1984), was a best-seller for months and sold a half-million hardcover copies.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Ms. Rivers turned up at the Grammys, the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, first for the E! Entertainment network and then for the TV Guide Channel, poking a microphone into freshly Botoxed faces on red carpets and asking, “Who are you wearing?” In 2010 she began starring on the E! show “Fashion Police,” where she and a panel gleefully critiqued celebrities’ wardrobes.

First Published September 4, 2014 3:04 PM


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