The world of comedy suffered another blow yesterday with the death of comedian, trailblazer, pot-stirrer, and larger-than-life personality Joan Rivers at the age of 81, after entering cardiac arrest during vocal-chord surgery in late August. While today’s generation likely grew up with Rivers primarily as a red-carpet and daytime TV presence, her career spanned well over 50 years, encompassed a broad swath of theater, TV, film, books, and fashion, and influenced many, many entertainers.
“When I started out, a pretty girl did not go into comedy….I wanted to be an actress.” Rivers wrote for the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. Indeed, Rivers began her career on stage before playing comedy clubs in Greenwich Village and eventually making it to The Tonight Show, first with original host Jack Paar, and then, after multiple auditions, with Johnny Carson, who anointed her an up and coming star on her first appearance.
Boom times followed in the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s, with regular appearances on shows like Hollywood Squares and The Carol Burnett Show, writing and directing her first feature film, the poorly received Rabbit Test, releasing her Grammy nominated comedy album What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? and becoming the first female comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Rivers began a career reinvention in the late 80’s, becoming the first female host in late night TV with The Late Show with Joan Rivers on the then fledgling FOX Network, a move that put her in direct competition with her former mentor, Johnny Carson, and also ended their friendship as a result. FOX fired Rivers after ratings sagged shortly into the show’s run in 1987.
She moved into daytime TV in 1989 with The Joan Rivers Show which ran for five years, nabbing her a Daytime Emmy award in the process. In 1994 she began a long and fruitful relationship with E! Entertainment Television with a career third act providing coverage and gleefully cringe-inducing comedy from award show red carpets.
Throughout her career, Rivers mined her own life for her material, relentlessly poking fun at her faults, her celebrity lifestyle, her ever-increasingly surgery-modified appearance, and even the suicide of her second husband. Brash, abrasive, and never apologetic, Rivers embodied a singular fearlessness with her comedy whether she was making wise about her own sex-life (“I blame my mother for my poor sex life. All she told me was, ‘The man goes on top and the woman underneath.’ For three years my husband and I slept in bunk beds.”) or, in later years, controversially joking about the Holocaust or the victims of the Ariel Castro kidnapping.
This week’s video captures Rivers at an early high – a routine on the undue pain of being a single woman from her 1967 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that still wows with its gutsiness and honesty. Whether you followed her from the beginning or only knew her as the catty fashion diva of today, you’ll walk away impressed with her righteous skewering of gender-based double standards in dating.
For more Joan Rivers, check out the recent acclaimed documentary on her life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, on Netflix, or grab a quick preview with the trailer, below.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fnojZw54ls