Thursday, September 04, 2014

Obituary: Joan Rivers

Pioneering standup comic Joan Rivers, 81, has died from complications as a result of throat surgery. Her family and close friends were with her at the time of her passing. Her health was precarious in the days following the surgery and at one point she was on life support. She is survived by her daughter Melissa and one grandchild.

Her older sister died last year at the age of 82.

Rivers, born Joan Molinsky on June 8, 1933, rose to fame at a time when female comics were rare. Her style of humor was often self-depreciating like Phyllis Diller's, but unlike Diller she tended to hit below the belt when it came to poking fun at celebrities. She was much more cutting than Diller. For example, she would make jokes about Elizabeth Taylor's weight or make cracks about Victoria Principal's real age, often not endearing herself to those public figures. She was not "ladylike" in her humor approach, and therefore she broke down barriers for women.

I personally ran hot-and-cold with her, but she was a big hit to millions of people.

She was a regular on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and she had been a "permanent" substitute host for his show for years. Those appearances more than anything made her a household name. However, she "betrayed" him when she got a talk show gig on the fledgling Fox Network back in the late 1980s, and Carson was not happy with the move. From what I can gather, it appeared to have been a huge miscommunication among the parties involved, but Carson would never speak to her again.

River's Fox gig went kaput, but she remained in the spotlight, making numerous appearances on stage and on television. She was active right up until she had the fateful surgery.

Her caustic humor helped cover for some real tragedy she suffered when her second husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in 1987. She never remarried.

From the obit:

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.”

Here is an interview she did with Carson where they both discussed their careers:


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