“I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.”
Joan Rivers. Can we talk?
She could talk.
“I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.”
Born in Brooklyn on June 8, 1933, Joan Alexandra Molinsky wasn’t an unwanted baby, but watching her parents, immigrants from Russia, squabble over money left its mark on their youngest daughter. In time, she would mine comic gold from her insecurities. At first, she excelled at academics, graduating Phi Beta Kappa with degrees in English literature and anthropology from Barnard College in 1954. Perhaps she could have been a doctor, like her father, or married into society, her mother’s avid hope for her. Her main attraction, however, was the spotlight, and when an agent named Tony Rivers told her to change her name, Joan Rivers was born.
“My routines come out of total unhappiness. My audiences are my group therapy.”
Work ran the gamut in New York—she was a Rockefeller Center tour guide, a fashion consultant for Bond Clothing Stores, and an aspiring actress off-off-Broadway, once playing a lesbian with the hots for fellow Brooklynite Barbra Streisand. She found a niche in standup comedy, and a big break appearing on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar opened other doors, appearing on Candid Camera and The Ed Sullivan Show and hosting local talk shows of her own. By her reckoning the only woman in Greenwich Village doing standup, she found her voice from Lenny Bruce, who impressed Rivers with his truth-telling shock comedy and his encouragement as she navigated the tricky currents of showbiz.
“Is Elizabeth Taylor fat? Her favorite food is seconds.”
A partial, up-to-date, list of people offended, or said to be offended, by her caustic, cutting barbs, which reached the world by tweet as much as by TV include: Rihanna, Chelsea Handler, Adele, Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian, Kristen Stewart…the Anti-Defamation League wasn’t happy with her Holocaust jokes, either. But she refused to back down, using humor to call out ugliness and pretension of all kinds, not to mention bad dress sense.
Onlookers and bystanders were delighted. The turning point was her first appearance, the first of many, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, in 1965. National exposure led to varied opportunities, including a small dramatic role in the film adaptation of John Cheever’s The Swimmer (1968), writing the well-regarded TV movie The Girl Most Likely To… (1973), with Stockard Channing as an ugly duckling beautified and made vengeful by plastic surgery, and co-writing and directing the less well-regarded theatrical comedy Rabbit Test (1978), with Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man. Her dabbling paid dividends over the years: She’s funny voiced the robot “Dot Matrix” in Mel Brooks’s spoof Spaceballs (1987) and bedded Louie C.K. on a 2011 episode of his TV show. But blistering comedy before a live audience, be it at the side of Carson, opening for top stars in Las Vegas, or performing at many small clubs, something she did ceaselessly until her death, was her bread and butter, and her first love.
“I’ve learned from my dealings with Johnny Carson that no matter what kind of friendship you think you have with people you’re working with, when the chips are down, it’s all about business.”
Other than her close relationships with daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper, who would join her in subsequent TV ventures, standup was the one love that didn’t disappoint her. When in 1986 Carson, her mentor, got wind from the new Fox Television Network that she would be hosting a rival late night talk show before she could inform him personally, he froze her out completely, and the chill lasted on The Tonight Show until she broke the ice with Jimmy Fallon earlier this year. (David Letterman, who would have his own tempest with The Tonight Show, was far more accommodating, and had her on as a guest many times.) The Fox show proved a short-lived disaster, one that culminated in personal tragedy when her producer husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide three months after they were both fired in 1987.
A daytime program launched in 1989, The Joan Rivers Show, was more popular and won her an Emmy in 1990. Rivers, a Grammy nominee for the 1983 comedy album What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? and the author of several autobiographical bestsellers, added a Tony nomination to her mantle in 1994 with a Broadway play she co-wrote, Sally Marr…and Her Escorts, where she portrayed Lenny Bruce’s colorful mother.
“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”
Rivers got as well as she gave. The screenwriter of The Girl Most Likely To… was the first to crack wise about her frequent nips and tucks, which commenced in 1965 with an eye lift and became more numerous beginning in the 80s. Playing to younger audiences—and competing with younger talent—she felt she needed the boost. Walking (and stalking) red carpets, her specialty since she and Melissa began hosting (and popularizing) award pre-show events in the mid-90s, required her to keep up appearances as she kept on appearing—on QVC with her own jewelry line, on reality shows like Celebrity Apprentice and Big Brother UK, at the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles (the English adored her), and judging sartorial scandal on Fashion Police.
In 2010, before she relocated to California to be closer to her family (where together, they launched their own reality show, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?), she was the subject of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. We see her in baronial splendor in her Versailles-like New York apartment — but we also see the effort that goes into her career, as she files away jokes in cabinets, manages a hectic schedule of club dates, flights, and personal appearances (that would daunt someone half her age), all the while bantering with fans.
Despite living large in her $30 million Manhattan triplex, she never lost the common touch.
“Life is very tough. If you don’t laugh, it’s tough.”
Thanks, Joan, for toughing it out and lightening the load.