Joan Rivers, The Comedienne

Part 3: Before her celebrity trash-talking, "queen of mean" era, Rivers started out on The Ed Sullivan Show.
6:00 | 09/06/14

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Transcript for Joan Rivers, The Comedienne
Reporter: She would not go gentle into any good night. Some of her later years saw Joan rivers trying to pick public fights as she did on David Letterman's "Late Show" with the singer Adele. Oh yeah, lovely woman. Oh yeah. Ah, no, no, she's thin. Can we just talk to each other here? Reporter: Yet this past July, she would walk off a CNN set when interviewer Fredericka Whitfield characterized rivers' critiques as "Mean." You sell out on stage, even with your fashion critiquing, while it's very mean in some ways people can't wait to hear what you have to say. It's not mean. It's not mean. Really? It's not mean? Stop it with you do this, and you're mean, and you're that. You are not the one to interview a person who does humor. Sorry. Are we serious? Reporter: Joan rivers was serious about her professional prerogatives. For her, being a comic gave her the right to ridicule, like her friend, don Rickles. And like bob hope before her, rivers kept a career's worth of gags readily accessible on three by five index cards filed by topic in her home office, as the 2010 documentary "Joan rivers: A piece of work" revealed. Joan was always writing notes always keeping little scraps of paper in her purse with her jokes and then it would go into the file cabinet. Why should a woman cook? So her husband can say, "My wife makes a delicious cake" to some hooker? And you wonder why I'm still working at this age. Reporter: Through more than 50 years of standup, rivers was a kind of alchemist who began by spinning threads from her own life into comic gold, as she did on "The Carol Burnett show." I'm from Brooklyn but I haven't been back there for a long time. When I left, I left as a little ugly flat-chested little girl and here I am, voila today! An ugly, flat-chested, little woman. Reporter: In 1967, on one of her career-establishing appearances on "The ed Sullivan show," a 31-year-old Joan came off anything but aggressive, looking shiny as a penny and sounding like she wouldn't hurt a flea. A girl, she's 30 years old she's not married? She's an old maid. A man, he's 90 years old, he's not married, he's a catch. It's a whole different thing! Reporter: At her peak in 1986, on "The tonight show with Johnny Carson," a revved-up Joan was out on the edge just starting to take down the famous. Christie Brinkley is a living testament. She's what? You never can look at me and do these, can you? She the living -- Tell me about her a little bit. She's the living testament -- The living testament to -- That -- That what? Christie Brinkley is a living testament that? Peroxide causes brain damage! Reporter: While she gleefully pushed the pre-cable envelope on relationships with unsentimental smarts and the candor of a cab driver. Don't you think men really like intelligence more when it comes right down to it? Ah, please! No man has ever put his hand up a woman's dress looking for a library card! Reporter: By the 21st century, she was sun's-out-guns-out on the red carpet, teeing off on award-show celebrities for their fashion foibles. It's the first I've ever seen a woman with a case of blue balls. Reporter: Um, ouch? Yet for rivers, it wasn't about being mean, it was about being funny. She really believed that by insulting someone or taking them to task she was actually doing them a favor. She actually believed that it was a kind of great compliment, that it meant they were relevant. She did not see her insults as being terribly insulting. Reporter: Her unabashed willingness to "Go there" would empower everyone from Kathy griffin to Wanda Sykes. I tried waxing for the first time. I smacked the -- out of her. Reporter: Her fearlessness shining in the work of such supersmart comic superstars as Tina fey, like rivers, a second city alum, and Amy Poehler, here at the 2013 golden globes. I haven't really been following the controversy over "Zero dark 30," but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron. Reporter: Influenced herself by Phyllis Diller, rivers weaponized day-to-day domestic-front comic riffs into something like social criticism of the rituals of suburban life county. As she did in her I'm from a little town called larchmont where if you're not married, if you're a girl, and you're over 21, you're better off dead! It's that simple, you know? Reporter: A new generation would give rivers her propers as Sarah Silverman did on the web series "In bed with Joan." Women run comedy. It's all Tina fey and Whitney Cummings and Joan rivers. And all those hacks. That's enough! Reporter: In an old-school showbiz world dominated by men who flaunted their privilege, rivers fought for opportunities. Battling to be paid what she was worth, hosting her own shows without compromising her viewpoint or her sass. I don't know if any of you saw in the paper we have been banned in Boston, which I think is wonderful, wxne, so pick a finger, wxne. Reporter: From stand-up to internet snark, if you seek Joan rivers' influence, just look around and laugh, even if this comedy matriarch never wanted to be seen as a pioneer or a trailblazer. I don't like when the ladies come up and say, "Oh, you broke barriers for women!" I say, "I'm still breaking barriers, that's starting with it. And I can still take you, sweetheart, with both hands tied behind my back!"

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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