Revolutionary Comedienne Joan Rivers passed away this week at the age of 81 of cardiac arrest. In recent years, Rivers was best known for her biting and witty fashion criticism on the red carpet, but younger generations might forget that she was also a comedic pioneer in the 60s and 70s. So, we’d like to take a look back at the groundbreaking and controversial career of Joan Rivers: aka Heidi Abromowitz, aka the exiled daughter of Johnny Carson, aka The Mad Diva, aka The Queen of Plastic Surgery, aka…you get the idea.
Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrants in 1933. Her first acting role was in the play Driftwood, where she played a lesbian opposite a young Barbra Streisand. Her time working at comedy clubs around Greenwich Village eventually led to appearances on The Tonight Show when it was hosted by Jack Parr. She appeared on the show even more frequently when Johnny Carson took over hosting duties, though their relationship would eventually sour. She also wrote for and appeared on Candid Camera and The Ed Sullivan Show, even writing jokes for the famous mouse puppet Topo Gigio on the latter.
Soon, writing turned to acting as she appeared on The Carol Burnett Show and Hollywood Squares, as well as opening for singing stars in Las Vegas. In 1983 she became the first female comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall, and in 1984 received a Grammy nomination for her comedy album What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most. She pulled no punches with her comedy and no topic was sacred; especially her fellow celebrities, and even herself.
In 1986 she became the first woman to receive her own talk show on a major network, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. The show put her in the same timeslot as her mentor Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, and Carson only found out about it through Fox execs. When Rivers’ didn’t ask for Carson’s blessing, he took it as a personal affront and banned Rivers from his show; a ban that was carried on by subsequent hosts Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien (Jimmy Fallon eventually welcomed her back on his first episode as host). Carson never spoke to Rivers again. Rivers was fired from the show just a year later, when she fought against the firing of her husband Edgar Rosenberg as the show’s producer. Edgar committed suicide three months later, and Rivers partially blamed Fox executives for humiliating her husband and causing his death. However, in 1989 she once again had her own talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, for which she won a Daytime Emmy in 1990.
1995 was the first year Joan Rivers appeared with her daughter Melissa to host the pre-Academy Awards show for E! Television. Rivers would continue to deliver scathing fashion critiques of Hollywood’s biggest stars until 2003, when she moved to the TV Guide Channel. For the next ten years, she continued to appear on stage and screen, even winning 2009’s Celebrity Apprentice. Joan and her daughter Melissa received their own reality show, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, and Joan became a co-host on E!’s Fashion Police. True to her “in-your-face” form, she protested a Costco in Burbank, CA by handcuffing herself to a stranger’s shopping cart when the store refused to sell her book, I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me.
Even though the world won’t hear her raspy shouts again, the legacy of Joan Rivers lives on. Women comedians hadn’t addressed the tawdry, real life material Rivers pioneered, as it was considered crude and un-ladylike. She brought to the forefront the catty and gossipy humor that previously only existed around kitchen tables while the men were at work. She broke ground for future comedians like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, and dozens of others, despite claiming she hated the admiration and would kill any one of them for a role. Even after she became imitated, she refused to apologize for her jokes about Hamas, 9/11, the Holocaust, the Ariel Castro kidnappings, and even her own husband’s suicide, because she always believed comedy meant never having to say you’re sorry.