She’s the woman who asked “can we talk” — and then made sure we had plenty to listen to.
Joan Rivers died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan on Thursday afternoon at the age of 81. She had been taken there a week ago after losing consciousness during a procedure on her vocal cords at a private clinic.
Surely Rivers herself would have savoured the dark irony of leaving this life because she had to make sure she kept her power of speech intact. After all, she did title her 1986 autobiography, Enter Talking.
To most people under the age of 50 today, they would perceive that work as mostly being her appearances as the Wicked Witch of the Red Carpet or the Valkyrie of the Home Shopping Channel, but she once also had a stunning career in standup comedy and on television.
She was born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn to Russian immigrants Meyer Molinsky, a doctor, and Beatrice. Rivers had a privileged upbringing but struggled with weight — she was a self-proclaimed “fatty” as a child — and recalled using make-believe as an escape. After graduating from Barnard College in 1954, she went to work as a department store fashion co-ordinator before she turned to comedy clubs.
Her appearances as a guest and a regular guest host on The Tonight Show made her truly famous and show-business insiders predicted she would replace Johnny Carson when he retired.
But in 1986 she started her own rival nighttime talk show, The Late Show, on Fox TV and Carson not only never spoke to her again but she never appeared on The Tonight Show for him, for Jay Leno or for Conan O’Brien.
It might have been worth it if The Late Show had been a hit, but it was a terrible disaster and Fox fired both her and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, the show’s producer, after only a few months on the air. Rosenberg committed suicide shortly afterwards.
But she kept on working then and she kept on working until the very end.
She defended herself in an interview she gave the Star this past July.
“Look, Winston Churchill once said making someone laugh is like giving them a little holiday. What’s wrong with that? And if the jokes I make call attention to things that aren’t right in the world, that’s why I do it.”
Rivers was speaking about her last book, Diary of a Mad Diva, where even this acid-tongued misogynist slashed a little too deeply for many people’s taste, causing a flurry of threatened lawsuits, including one from Kirsten Stewart, who was upset by Rivers’ allegations she had slept her way into her role in Snow White and the Huntsman
“I can’t wait to get into a courtroom with her,” Rivers cackled. “I’m going to bring a Ken doll and I want her to show me on it just where she touched her director.”
But when told Stewart had been fired from the sequel, she expressed momentary remorse and actually said, “I’m sorry,” before snapping back to form: “But, hey, how much did she make out of that first movie anyway, 25 million? Baby, that’s a lot of Tim Hortons.”
She went on to proudly claim she mocked “everybody, regardless of race, creed or colour. I hear the Kardashians aren’t happy with me either, but they should be happy that they’re in the public consciousness. It’s what they want. Look, everybody is fair game if you’re in the public eye and making over $20 million a year.”
The more serious side of Rivers came to the fore in the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
It reveals a woman who finds an empty page in her calendar the most frightening sight in the world, a woman who lives for the next gig, the next chance to make them laugh.
“Yeah, I still feel that way,” she said four years later. “I’m terrified if it looks like nobody wants me. How long will that go on? Forever. In our business, you never know. When I was doing my show on Fox, I walked into the office one Thursday and they said, ‘You’re finished.’ I was off the air the next night. You never know. Someone buys a network, it’s game over. Look at what just happened on The View.”
Put perhaps the most revealing gesture in Rivers’ later life was her decision early in 2014 to acquire her first tattoo. It was very small, on the inside of her left arm, and it said simply “6m.”
“It stands for the six million Jews who were killed in Auschwitz. It’s a way of reminding people. It’s a way of saying, ‘Don’t forget. Don’t ever forget.’
“Every joke I make, no matter how tasteless, is there to draw attention to something I really care about.”
- With files from The Associated Press