Joan Rivers, comedy’s cutting force, dies at 81

Joan Rivers, whose snarky, politically incorrect, and often self-lacerating brand of humor made her a comedian both loved and feared by her many fans and show business peers, and whose five-decade career spanned every imaginable comedic vehicle, died Thursday at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital. She was 81.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Melissa, although the cause has not been officially determined.A week ago, Ms. Rivers entered the hospital after losing consciousness while undergoing a surgical procedure at a Manhattan clinic. She reportedly had been placed in a medically induced coma days ago and was on life support since Tuesday.

Ms. Rivers proved to be remarkably versatile, from the stage and network talk shows to stand-up nightclub acts, movies, best-selling books, television reality shows, and red carpet fashion revues more cutting than a plastic surgeon’s scalpel.


As a female counterpart to prickly, pioneering comics such as Lenny Bruce and Don Rickles, she first garnered widespread attention in 1965 appearing alongside a kinder, gentler comedic legend: “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson. He delighted in her raspy, in-your-face humor, and made her his regular guest host for two memorable decades, catapulting Ms. Rivers to stardom — and eventually to a competing talk show of her own airing on the then-new Fox network. That ended her relationship with Carson and opened a personal wound that never fully healed.

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“Can we talk?” quickly became Ms. Rivers’s signature opening line. And talk she did, in a gossipy, take-no-prisoners manner that shocked some, wounded others, and made millions laugh at her sheer brazenness, even as she admonished those she offended: “Oh, grow up!”

Pushing the comedic envelope became her stock in trade, much as her numerous cosmetic surgeries — she was brutally candid about those, too — sharpened her features as well as her tongue. There were few sacred cows in Ms. Rivers’s personal corral. She once said that Queen Elizabeth II dressed in “gowns by Helen Keller” and pronounced one of Tina Fey’s outfits a “decorative toilet seat cover.” She joked about 9/11 and the Holocaust. To many, she appeared nasty at times, even cruel, and abrasively insensitive to others’ personal tragedies.

If her barbs stung, though, especially where skins were thinnest, her targets also saw her exploit her own flaws and foibles for belly laughs. Even the darker personal chapters in her life became comic fodder for Ms. Rivers. Following the 1987 suicide of her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, she recalled dining with the couple’s daughter. “I looked at the menu and said, ‘If Daddy were here to see these prices, he’d kill himself all over again.’ ”

Asked in a 2010 Globe interview what she found shocking in today’s comedy, Ms. Rivers replied, “They’re still very shocked by my saying some people got money for 9/11 and are happy that their relatives died. But I tell them, don’t say anything. Next Thanksgiving, look around your table and think: If it was quick and fast and I got $5 million tax-free, which one would not be here next year?”


She continued, “I will do jokes about Hitler and Auschwitz half the time just to remind them that there was a Hitler and there was an Auschwitz.”

Watch: Globe critics discuss Rivers’s legacy

As news of her death spread Thursday, tributes continued to pour in, many posted on social media sites from younger female comedians who viewed Ms. Rivers as a trailblazer and role model.

Amy Poehler tweeted, “Every woman in comedy is indebted to her. She was there at the beginning and funny to the end.”

“Watching Joan Rivers do stand-up at age 81 ,” wrote Lena Dunham, “was incredible: athletic, jaw-dropping, terrifying, essential. It never stopped. Neither will she.”

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel weighed in on her death, saying in a statement: “Joan Rivers brought laughter to millions around the world and was proud of her Jewish heritage and a vocal supporter of the State of Israel. We will miss her deeply and we send our heartfelt condolences to her family.”


Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, N.Y., she got an early taste of comedy along with her sister, Barbara, from their father, Meyer, a Jewish immigrant doctor from Russia who dabbled in comedic impressions. The family lived in Larchmont, N.Y.

She graduated from Barnard College in 1954 with a degree in English. Prior to pursuing acting, she worked as a department store publicist and fashion coordinator. An early marriage, to James Sanger, lasted six months. In 1965, she married Rosenberg, with whom she had her only child. She leaves her daughter, Melissa, and grandson, Connor. Barbara, her older sister and only sibling, died in 2013.

Before her break on Carson’s show, Ms. Rivers — who changed her surname at her agent’s suggestion — acted in small off-Broadway roles while trying her hand at stand-up. In a memoir titled “Enter Talking,” she recalled performing comedy at a Boston strip club in bleaker times.

“Even sobbing in the filthy shower in Boston, telling myself, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to do it anymore,’ I had known I would keep on going, no matter what.”

Her lengthy show business resume eventually grew to include Hollywood films, one of which she wrote and directed (“Rabbit Test,” 1978); Grammy-nominated comedy albums; a New York radio show; a dozen books, fiction and nonfiction, including the 1984 bestseller “The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz”; her own clothing and jewelry lines; “The Joan Rivers Show,” a Daytime Emmy winner in 1990; the title role in “Sally Marr . . . and Her Escorts,” a 1994 Broadway play that earned her a Tony Award nomination; starring roles on the E! Entertainment show “Fashion Police,” and a mother-and-daughter reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”; a YouTube series; plus countless appearances on behalf of the many charities she championed.

When asked in the Globe interview what her “perfect death scenario” might be, and whether she would be cracking jokes right up to the end, as she had once promised, Ms. Rivers barely blinked — or perhaps could not, given the Botox injections she freely admitted getting — in replying, “For an hour show in Las Vegas, you have to be on stage 31 minutes or you don’t get paid. I would like to drop dead at 32 minutes so Melissa gets the money. What a show for those people. Dinner and a death? And half the show? You can’t beat that.”

More coverage:

Joan Rivers’s career highlights

Photos: The life of a legend

6/13:10: Can we talk? Of course, and you know Rivers can.

Notable figures remember Joan Rivers

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at