After being taken to a hospital in cardiac arrest last week, Emmy-winning comedian Joan Rivers died today in New York. She was 81. “It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers,” Melissa Rivers said in a statement. “She passed peacefully at 1:17 PM surrounded by family and close friends.”
The veteran performer loomed sufficiently large in the pop culture world that cable news networks interrupted programming to report news of her death — NBC broke into its programming with a news alert.
During a minor endoscopic procedure last Thursday to check her vocal cords at an Upper East Side clinic, Rivers stopped breathing and was rushed to Mount Sinai, where she was put into a medically induced coma. On Wednesday, she was moved from intensive care to a private room at the Manhattan hospital.
Rivers logged a half-century in show business and gave rise to red carpet commentary — and the snarky criticism that often accompanies it. Her signature query was, “Who are you wearing?” During the latter part of her career, she provided red carpet coverage for awards show on E! and also was the host of E!’s Fashion Police. Recently, she hosted the online talk show In Bed With Joan and co-starred with her daughter on the WE tv reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best.
Rivers had been scheduled to perform August 29 at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, NJ, which last week postponed the performance, telling fans to hang on to their tickets. According to Ticketmaster, she had seven shows scheduled for November. On August 27, Rivers promoted her new book, Diary Of A Mad Diva, at the Time & Life Building in Manhattan. Her employer E! reported she was “lively” and “sharp as she’s ever been” at that event. That night, she performed at New York’s Beechman Theatre, at which she joked about death, according to an attendee interviewed by CNN.
“She said, ‘You know I’m 81 years old, and I could drop dead at any moment — and you would be so lucky because you will have a story to tell your friends for the rest of your life,’” the audience member told CNN.
“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” Melissa Rivers said today. “Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”
Born Joan Alexandra Molinksy in Brookyn to Russian Jewish immigrants, Beatrice and Meyer C. Molinsky, she changed her name early on during her showbiz career to Rivers per the suggestion of then-agent Tony Rivers. Prior to establishing herself with a quick-witted, fiercely pungent stand-up, Rivers worked as Rockefeller Center tour guide, an ad agency writer-proofreader and a fashion consultant at Bond Clothing Stores. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College in 1954 with a bachelor’s in English literature and anthropology.
The New York native originally entered show business with the intention of pursuing a theatrical career. During the late 1950s, Rivers played a lesbian in the short play Driftwood — opposite Barbra Streisand, before she hit her stride — which ran for six weeks. But, she told the Associated Press in 2013, “Somebody said, ‘You can make $6 standing up in a club,’ … I said, ‘Here I go!’ It was better than typing all day.” She cut her teeth as a stand-up during the 1960s Greenwich Village scene, and was a 1961 Second City stage alumni in Chicago, where she was known for her shy and insecure characters, i.e. the dental assistant who shares an after-hours drink out of rinse cups with her married boss. She also starred in the popular Second City repertoire blackout sketch “Our Children” and starred in the company’s show My Friend Art Is Dead opposite the late improv-guru Del Close.
But it was on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson that Rivers got her big break when she first appeared in 1965. “God, you’re funny,” Carson told her. She called him her mentor and became his first official fill-in host, but when she agreed to host a rival show on Fox in 1986, Carson severed their relationship. She said he never spoke to her again. Her banning from the show was carried on by Carson’s Tonight successors Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien; Rivers’ next appearance on Tonight wasn’t until this year — the night Jimmy Fallon debuted as host. Rivers was part of a comedy bit in which a stream of Fallon pals who’d bet him $100 he’d never host the show paid off the bet — a stream that also included Robert De Niro, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Kardashian, Tina Fey, Rudy Giuliani, Lady Gaga, Mike Tyson, Tracy Morgan, Joe Namath, and Stephen Colbert, among others. She returned for an interview on the show in March.
When her Fox late-night show sputtered, Rivers next hosted a daytime talk show called The Joan Rivers Show. It earned her a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1989 and ended its run in 1993. Rivers directed one film in her career, the wacky 1978 comedy Rabbit Test. It was the big-screen debut of fellow NYC comic Billy Crystal, who starred as the world’s first pregnant man.
In 2009, Rivers won NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice. A documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work, premiered in theaters in 2010. Diary Of A Mad Diva was released in July.
With her trademark line, “Can we talk?” Rivers’ biting humor certainly was not everyone’s cup of tea – though she got points in some quarters for making jokes at her own expense. A big fan of cosmetic surgery, Rivers once quipped, “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.” Last month she stormed out of an interview with CNN‘s Fredricka Whitfield after Whitfield called her trademark fashion blasts “mean,” and asked Rivers if she was concerned the fur she was wearing on the cover of her new book might offend animal rights activists. “You’re not the person to interview someone who does humor,” Rivers snapped as she left. Three days later, she stopped by David Letterman‘s CBS late-night show, where she began to poke fun at June Allyson — America’s Sweetheart circa 1940 — and Dave walked out in protest, leaving Rivers to interview herself.
Until the end, Rivers was no stranger to controversy, which became continual fodder for headlines. Prior to her on-air feud with CNN’s Whitfield, she officiated a gay wedding at a book signing, and soon after called President Obama gay and Michelle Obama a transgender in an interview with a street reporter. Rivers claimed Kristen Stewart was trying to sue her over jokes in Mad Diva regarding the Twilight actress’ relationships with directors. Rivers responded to Stewart in an interview with TMZ, warning, “Be glad you’re not a Kardashian because they’re mentioned a lot more in the book.”
Last year, Rivers — a longtime member of the Writers Guild of America East — ran afoul of the union. In April 2013, writers on the Rivers-hosted Fashion Police filed a claim with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, alleging that E! had broken state labor law by not compensating them for all of the regular and overtime hours they’d worked. E! and the WGA East traded accusations in the ensuing weeks, and in July, writers slammed Rivers in a video complaining about her lack of support. “Actions speak louder than words: If Joan supported the writers this would be over,” scribe Jackie Beat said. E! responded: “Joan Rivers has been and remains emphatically supportive of the writers. Her company does not produce Fashion Police nor set the compensation of E! Networks Productions’ writers.”
Then in August, Rivers called the union out after it set a disciplinary trial board hearing over her role on the show. “This is such a bunch of bullshit,” she said. “E! should hire Anthony Weiner to work with these people. He’d fit right in.” The three-judge hearing was set for October, but it was called off a week before the date when Rivers agreed to not “render any writing services even though as a comedian and SAG-AFTRA host, I often write material for myself.” But in a November interview with comedy site Splitsider, she called striking Fashion Police writers “schmuck writers” and “idiots,” and it was on again. The guild slammed her “reprehensible” remarks, and Rivers the next day said she was “stunned by the WGAE’s recent personal attacks.”
Rivers made headlines again last month when she responded to a reporter’s query at LAX about Palestinians killed in Israel’s response to Hamas rocket attacks. Rivers said Palestinian civilians “deserve to be dead” and that “they are terrorists … re-elected by stupid people who don’t own a pencil.” She later walked her words back: “What I said and stand behind is war is hell, and unfortunately civilians are victims of political conflicts. We, the United States, certainly know this as 69 years later we still feel the guilt of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. … Along with every other sane person in this world, I am praying for peace.”
Rivers took pleasure in mocking herself, as evident when she played herself in the Season 2 episode of FX’s Louie titled “Joan,” which caps off with Louis C.K. making a pass at her. After he bombs onstage during a casino performance and is fired for his jokes about the Trump establishment, Rivers parlays the following advice to him about show business: “I wish I could tell you it gets better, it doesn’t get better. You get better. You think it’s been easy? I’ve gone up, I’ve gone down, I’ve been bankrupt, I’ve been broke, but you do it. And you do it because … because we love it more than anything else, that’s why you do it. You want a real job, honey? There’s millions of things you can do. But what we do is not a job. It’s sounds so stupid: What we do is a calling. We make people happy. It’s a calling.”