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 on Thursday in Manhattan. She was 81.
Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, confirmed her death. A spokeswoman, Judy Katz, said the cause had not yet been determined.
Ms. Rivers died at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she was taken last Thursday after reportedly losing consciousness while undergoing a procedure on her vocal cords at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side. 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 she 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.
She 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, 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 taped 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 Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Larchmont, in 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’d 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.
On Nancy Reagan’s hairdo: “Bulletproof. If they ever combed it, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa.”
On Charlton Heston: “He told us, ‘I got Alzheimer’s.’ Surprise! He’s been wearing his wig sideways for 19 years.”
On Donatella Versace: “That skin! She looks like something you’d hang off your door in Africa.”
On Sandra Bullock’s Bottega Veneta gown at the Golden Globes: “It looked like Prince’s old prom dress.” (And Tina Fey’s Zac Posen: “A decorative toilet seat cover.”)
On Queen Elizabeth II: “Gowns by Helen Keller.” “Nice looking. Not at all like her stamp. Wears her watch over the glove, though — tacky.”
On herself, desperate for a man: “My parents had a sign, ‘Last girl before thruway.’ I’d get an obscene phone call. I’d say, ‘Hold on a minute, let me get a cigarette.’ ”
Nothing was sacred.
On her husband’s suicide: “After Edgar killed himself, I went out to dinner with Melissa. I looked at the menu and said, ‘If Daddy were here to see these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.’ ”
Even the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were not off limits. “A few days after 9/11,” Jonathan Van Meter recalled in a 2010 New York magazine article, “she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground.”
Mr. Van Meter wrote: “She pushes as far as she can as soon as she can. It’s compulsive.”
“Oh, grow up!” she advised.
Successes and Setbacks
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“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 Carson, who said that 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. As she told widows and other sorrowing women at a lecture billed as a “grief seminar” some years later: Think positive. Make a list. “One, I don’t live in Bosnia. Two, I never dated O. J.”
“There are two kinds of friends, and both mean very well,” she added. “One group doesn’t want you to grieve at all — ‘Come on, come on. It has been a week and a half since you lost Joe. Get out. Enough!’ The other kind never want to see you be anything but grieving. ‘Your husband is dead only eight years, and you’re wearing a red dress?’ ”
Dreaming of the Stage
Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born in Brooklyn 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.
In “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s” (2003), Gerald Nachman wrote, “Rivers is actually the well-groomed comic granddaughter of Yiddishe mamas like Belle Barth and Pearl Williams, female titans who roamed the Catskills and Miami Beach and who reveled in subversive humor at the expense of both men and themselves.” He added, “When that wore out and she became a star, she turned her death ray on others, verbally abusing women who were thinner, richer and more famous while serving audiences as their new bitchy role model, styled by Oscar de la Yenta.”
There were risks and reversals in her more aggressive style. Her appearance on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” 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 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 “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
A Big Breakthrough
She broke through on Carson’s show in 1965. They had an immediate rapport. She told gags about her mother’s struggle to marry her off, and about a motorist who ran over her wig and apologized for killing her dog. She soon had bookings at choice nightclubs in Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
As a frequent guest host on “The Tonight Show” in the ’70s, she toned down her acidity for the national audience and often exploited self-deprecation, a theme of her early nightclub work: “A peeping Tom looked in my window and pulled down the shade.” She was so fat as a child that “I was my own buddy at camp; I began to retreat into myselves.”
Her ratings as host sometimes surpassed 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. She was on magazine covers, commanded $200,000 for five nights in Las Vegas and was in demand for awards shows, conventions and TV specials.
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.
After being dismissed by Fox, she reinvented herself as a writer, producer and entrepreneur. She and her daughter reconciled and made a film, “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story” (1994). Beginning in 2011 they had their own reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” on the WE cable channel.
For years Ms. Rivers marketed her own lines of jewelry and clothing on television shopping channels. Beginning in the mid-1990s, she 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.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, she had her own daytime television talk program, “The Joan Rivers Show”; she won the Daytime Emmy for best talk show host in 1990. She was also nominated for Drama Desk and Tony awards for her performance in the title role of “Sally Marr ... and Her Escorts,” a 1994 Broadway play based on the life of Lenny Bruce’s mother.
A documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, was released in 2010. By then she had weathered 50 years in show business, appeared in thousands of television programs, more than a dozen films and countless nightclubs; written 11 books (the number grew to 12 with the publication of “Diary of a Mad Diva” this year); raised millions for AIDS, Guide Dogs for the Blind, cystic fibrosis and other charities; and amassed a fortune estimated at $290 million.
She lived in a triplex penthouse just off Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park that featured a ballroom with gilded columns and 23-foot-high ceilings. It was on the market for $29.5 million in 2011, when she told The New York Times: “Qaddafi wanted to rent it for that whole U.N. thing. People said it’s blood money. I said, ‘Oh, I can easily wash blood off dollar bills.’ But they didn’t like it. It was too close to a synagogue.”
Her delivery was like an automatic sprinkler: fast, relentless and sometimes prone to stick, soaking a comic riff into a muddy swamp.
She could be hilarious, and other times, almost wincingly off the mark. Most days, Joan Rivers, who died at 81 on Thursday, looked as if she couldn’t stop herself, as if she stopped telling jokes the well would dry up and the lights would go out.
She wasn’t the first female standup comedian, but she was certainly one of the hardest working, driven by a desperation that was all her own and yet epitomized old-school showbiz: No gig was too small or too far away.
In retrospect, her early routines, in the 1960s, about being an unmarried daughter of a Jewish mother seem tame. But Ms. Rivers kept up with changing mores with increasingly raunchy material. Without altering her style, she became just as fluid about venues. When she wore out her welcome on talk shows and comedy albums, she ventured into reality shows and red carpet catcalls. There was nothing she wouldn’t do: “Fashion Police,” hair loss infomercials, even a web chat show, “In Bed With Joan.” And she still wrote jokes every night and traveled to stand-up gigs.
Her humor was harsh, but she had a disarming way of laughing at her own jokes. She became famous — and a gay idol — for catty, over-the-line jokes. Commenting on a 2013 celebrity event, she said of the model Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” (When some groups complained that her comment was anti-Semitic, she retorted that the only people who had a right to complain were Nazis.)
Female comics today like Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman are not as self-deprecating as Ms. Rivers and other female pioneers who were considered freakish just for daring to do stand-up. Acceptance then meant accepting the role of self-hating clown.
Onstage, Ms. Rivers was her own best target, ransacking her deepest insecurities for a laugh: her looks, her sex appeal, her marriage and even, a few years after he died, her husband’s suicide. She mocked aging and, most of all, her obsession with plastic surgery. In an interview on the occasion of her 80th birthday last year, Ms. Rivers said, “I’m celebrating with my 80th face.”
She was the butt of her mother-daughter reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” (on WE), a tongue-in-cheek look at an overbearing Jewish mother and her put-upon daughter, together in Malibu. Their adventures were as fabricated as their faces: Melissa hires a buxom Swedish au pair; Joan refers to her as “The Hunchfront of Notre Dame.”
Through four seasons, Ms. Rivers and her daughter looked similarly, uncannily unnatural. It was never clear whether Melissa’s face was a surgical homage to her mother or proof that Lamarck’s theory about the inheritance of acquired traits was correct.
At 81, Ms. Rivers seemed to be losing it a bit of late, not just uninhibited but disinhibited. In July, she stormed out of a CNN interview because the anchor, Fredricka Whitfield, asked blunt and unimaginative questions (like whether Ms. Rivers was “mean”). Ms. Rivers could easily have batted them away. Instead, she let loose a rare flare of indignation over having to explain herself after 50 years in the business. “I don’t want to hear this nonsense,” she told the anchor, whom she called Darlene. “You are not the one to interview a person who does humor.”
She stumbled over the tripwire of Middle East politics, saying in an off-the-cuff interview that she didn’t regret the civilian death toll in Gaza.
But then she was as quick and irreverent as ever in an August appearance on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” to promote her latest book, “Diary of a Mad Diva.” She began by scoffing at Anne Frank and her famous diary.
“She’s a best-selling author,” she said. “One book. One book! I’ve written 12 books,” before adding: “Did you ever read the book? There’s no ending.”
A 2010 documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” captured her comic gifts and also the neediness that even in the winter of her career drove her from comedy club to seedy hotel to airplane to comedy club. Begun in 2008, the film captured Ms. Rivers in a dry spell, when she was on tenterhooks waiting to see if she would be picked as a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.” (She was, and won.)
Her face never showed her age. Her apartment did. In the film, she gave a tour of her vast Gilded Age penthouse overlooking Central Park. The ballroom, gold-leaf boiserie and French furniture fit for Versailles had an Old World grandeur that may be outmoded now, but certainly fit the aspirational fantasies of the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants born at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.
Fame and fortune were never enough, of course, and slowing down was out of the question.
When an interviewer asked her around her 80th birthday whether she planned to retire, there was no laughter in her voice as she replied, “And do what?”
She gave her own epitaph before leaving the CNN interview, saying, “I am put on earth to make people laugh.”