On this day in 2014, Joan Rivers, one of the best-known comedians of her era, dies at age 81 in a New York City hospital, a week after she went into cardiac arrest while undergoing a medical procedure on her vocal cords at a Manhattan clinic. During a showbiz career that spanned more than five decades, Rivers blazed a trail for women in stand-up comedy and turned “Can we talk?” into a national catchphrase. No topic was taboo for the irreverent, sharp-tongued performer, who poked fun at her personal life and affinity for plastic surgery, skewered Hollywood celebrities and once said, “I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”
Born Joan Molinsky on June 8, 1933, to Russian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, the entertainer graduated from Barnard College in 1954. Interested in becoming an actress, she scored parts in Off-Broadway plays and worked office temp jobs to support herself. In the late 1950s, she started performing stand-up comedy in nightclubs as a means to earn money; at the time, there were few other female stand-up comics. In the early 1960s, she did a stint with the Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe. Along the way, at the suggestion of an agent, she changed her last name to Rivers. In 1965, her career took off after she made her first appearance on “The Tonight Show,” hosted by Johnny Carson, who told her she was going to be a star. Rivers went on to rack up numerous guest spots on the program, while also appearing on other TV comedy shows and doing her stand-up act around the country.
In 1983, Rivers was tapped as the permanent guest host on “The Tonight Show.” Three years later, she inked a deal for her own late-night TV show on another network. Afterward, Carson, who reportedly felt betrayed, never spoke to Rivers again (she was blacklisted from “The Tonight Show” until 2014, when host Jimmy Fallon invited her on as a guest). “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” debuted in October 1986 but soon sank in the ratings, and Rivers was fired in May 1987. That August, Rivers’ husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who served as a producer of her show, committed suicide.
Rivers’ career temporarily stalled but she eventually signed on to host her own daytime talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show,” which aired from 1989 to 1993. Next, the raspy-voiced comedian added fashion maven to her resume and helped revolutionize red-carpet coverage and popularize the question “Who are you wearing?,” after she and her daughter, Melissa, began hosting E! Entertainment’s pre-award shows for the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and other events, starting in the mid-1990s. From 2010 until her death, Rivers was a co-host of the TV program “Fashion Police,” on which she cattily critiqued the style choices of celebrities. Rivers also published a dozen books during her career, produced a jewelry line for TV shopping channel QVC and supported a variety of charitable causes. After starting out in the 1950s with dreams of working in theater, she earned a Tony Award nomination in the best actress category in 1994 for her role in the Broadway play “Sally Marr…and her escorts,” which she co-wrote.
Rivers gave what turned out to be her last stand-up performance, in Manhattan, on August 27, 2014, the night before the medical procedure that led to her death on September 4. Three days later, the legendary funny woman was memorialized at a star-studded service in New York City. As Rivers had noted in her 2012 book “I Hate Everyone … Starting With Me,” she wanted a send-off that was “a huge showbiz affair with lights, cameras, action.”