Joan Rivers Dies At 81

Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers, who became a pioneer for women in comedy and remained popular and active literally up until the end, has died at the age of 81, one week after being admitted to a New York hospital after going into cardiac arrest during an apparently routine outpatient medical procedure:

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.

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.

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 Lenny 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.”

Shocked? Offended?

“Oh, grow up!” she advised

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 that he 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.”


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.

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.

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). From 2011 to they had their own reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” on the WE cable channel.

My earliest memories of Joan Rivers came from her time as a guest and guest host of The Tonight Show, at least those times when my parents would let me stay up late enough to watch it. Then, I remember when she took the late night slot at the at the time still forming Fox Broadcasting Network, something which caused a permanent rift between her and Johnny Carson that was never healed. Indeed, from the time she took that job Rivers was not invited as a guest on The Tonight Show until earlier this year when she appeared with new host Jimmy Kimmel. In any case, she managed to bounce back from the disaster that the Fox show turned into and reinvent herself for a new generation. Indeed, she was still working right up until the end, with a show at a club in New York City the night before the doctor’s appointment that ended up sending her to the hospital last Thursday. Not bad for someone in their 80’s, not bad at all.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Mikey says:

    Sad news. She was so active and full of life, I thought she’d be around a while longer.

    What do you suppose she’d say about her own death? Maybe something like “At least I’ll look the same 50 years from now…”

    A very funny woman, a pioneer in a male-dominated field. Sad to see her gone.

  2. Gustopher says:

    I never liked her — her act was mean-spirited and superficial, and I never found it funny. She was like an earlier, older, female Andrew Dice Clay relying upon shock value more than anything and just pushing the boundary of how nasty she could be. So, better than Andrew Dice Clay.

    Still, she was a trailblazer for women in standup comedy, and lots of people found her inexplicably funny. She will doubtless be missed.

    The 9/11 joke was great though. And the joke about her husband’s suicide. It makes you wonder what she could have become if she started in an era when it was more accepted that women had views on things other than fashion and gossip.

  3. KM says:

    apparently routine outpatient medical procedure

    No such animal. Every procedure has risks, ranging from the common minor to astronomically-rare side effect. People forget this because probability is good to them so very often. It bugs me when I hear “routine” when something like this happens as if it’s some sort of guarantee of safety. Every minute of every day, we spin the wheel. Get lucky too often, you forget loss is even a possibility.

    It just means you appreciate what you have even more when you realize how easily it can slip away. Rest in peace, good lady, and know you will be missed.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Very funny person.

    “I said Justin Bieber looked like a little lesbian — and I stand by it.”

  5. Pinky says:

    I really don’t think of her as a groundbreaker. To me, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, and Phyllis Diller did a lot more to open up comedy. Rivers’ career was very successful in the second half.

    Edited to add: Lucy. Probably others I’m also blanking on.

  6. @Gustopher:

    her act was mean-spirited

    She was an insult comic. That’s like complaining about too much singing at the opera.

  7. Neil Hudelson says:


    I think we forget about how much of a groundbreaker she was because she did, ultimately, fail in the first half of her career. She first guest-hosted the tonight show in the 60s–a time slot dominated purely by men. While Mary Tyler Moore blazed forth with starring in her own vehicle (did she? Was there no one before her? I’m not from this era), and Carol Burnette was and still is damn funny, Rivers pushed forth in an area that was dark, dirty, and masculine.

    I dont’ know if it speaks more to her strength–or detracts from her legacy–in that it appears she has been the only woman that’s been able to push into this field. (Unless I’m forgetting a woman who has had moderate success hosting a late night show.)

  8. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Wrong. She hosted many talk shows in the 60s, but not The Tonight Show. She started that in the 70s.

  9. Scott says:

    I watched a few years back Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. I came away newly impressed by her drive and hard work even at her age. A really good documentary that showed some of the rage behind the comedy.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: sure, she was an insult comic, but her insults were so often incredibly superficial.

    I want more from my insult comics.

    That said, I think the acceptable targets for female insult comics in the 60s and 70s were pretty limited. In fact, I can think of no female insult comics before her — not in the traditional sense of standup comedy at least — so I would suspect her act was carefully tailored.

  11. beth says:

    I just saw one of the anchors on the E network say he was too upset to tweet. Joan would have made a hell of a joke about that. RIP.

  12. Just 'nutha' Ig'rant Cracker says:

    @Pinky: I thought of Elaine May and Imogene Coca, but they didn’t do stand up, their forte was sketch comedy.

  13. ernieyeball says:

    Moms Mabley

    By age 14, Mabley had been raped twice and had two children who were given up for adoption. She came out as a lesbian at the age of twenty-seven (1921),..

  14. PogueMahone says:

    On the film 300: “On a scale of one to ten on how gay it was.”

    On sagging parts as you age: “Have you ever seen an old man sitting on a toilet? It’s like watching a man make a cup of tea.”

    Just a couple of recent jokes that made me roll over laughing. Very funny woman.


  15. bill says:

    @Gustopher: hopefully you’re a girl- crude humor is what actually unites us, despite the pc rhetoric. dice was awesome, he slayed everyone and did it well. joan was always crude, she didn’t always get panned by the media for it because she was good at it. now a days we have to listen to these dumbed down versions who can’t offend across racial lines unless they’re a minority.
    i thought blacks/spics/chinks/wops/mics/limeys/hebes/krauts/frogs/etc. were supposed to be tough, but they all whine like bitches if someone makes a joke about them?! so much for the “sticks & stones” era i guess.

  16. Grewgills says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    That is the problem with opera. I might like it more if there were less singing. Guess I should just go to plays instead.

  17. pylon says:

    @Gustopher: As a lot of people have said, the problem was that she punched down with her comedy a fair bit.