Comedian Joan Rivers Dead at 81

Joan Rivers never relaxed, always looking for the next and better punchline.

"The trouble with me is, I make jokes too often," she told the AP in 2013, just days after the death of her older sister. "I was making jokes yesterday at the funeral home. That's how I get through life. Life is SO difficult — everybody's been through something! But you laugh at it, it becomes smaller."

She had faced true crisis in the mid-1980s. Edgar Rosenberg, her husband of 23 years, committed suicide in 1987 after she was fired from her Fox talk show, which he produced. The show's failure was a major factor, Rivers said. Rosenberg's suicide also temporarily derailed her career.

"Nobody wants to see someone whose husband has killed himself do comedy four weeks later," she told The New York Times in 1990.

Rivers had originally entered show business with the dream of being an actress, but comedy was a way to pay the bills while she auditioned for dramatic roles. "Somebody said, 'You can make six dollars standing up in a club,'" she told the AP, "and I said, 'Here I go!' It was better than typing all day."

In the early 1960s, comedy was a man's game and the only women comics she could look to were Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller. But she worked her way up from local clubs in New York until, in 1965, she landed her big break on "The Tonight Show" after numerous rejections. "God, you're funny. You're going to be a star," host Johnny Carson told her after she had rocked the audience with laughter.

Her nightclub career prospered and by late that year she had recorded her first comedy album, "Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories." Her personal life picked up as well: She met British producer Rosenberg and they married after a four-day courtship.

Rivers hosted a morning talk show on NBC in 1968 and, the next year, made her Las Vegas debut with female comedians still a relative rarity.

"To control an audience is a very masculine thing," Rivers told the Los Angeles Times in 1977. "The minute a lady is in any form of power, they (the public) totally strip away your femininity — which isn't so. Catherine the Great had a great time."

In 1978, she wrote, directed and co-starred in the movie "Rabbit Test." It had an intriguing premise — Billy Crystal as a man who gets pregnant — but was poorly received. In 1983, though, she scored a coup when she was named permanent guest host for Carson on "Tonight."

Although she drew good ratings, NBC hesitated in renewing her contract three years later. Fledgling network Fox jumped in with an offer of her own late-night show.

She launched "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" on Fox in 1986, but the venture lasted just a season and came at a heavy price: Carson cut ties with her when she surprised him by becoming a competitor.

Carson kept publicly silent about her defection but referred obliquely to his new rival in his monologue on the day her show debuted.

"There are a lot of big confrontations this week," Carson said as the audience giggled expectantly. "Reagan and Gorbachev, the Mets versus the Astros, and me versus 'The Honeymooners' lost episodes."

Her show was gone in a year and she would declare that she had been "raped" by Fox; three months later, her husband was found dead.

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