Joan Rivers Dead at 81: The Life, Legacy of Comedic Icon

Part 1: A look back at Rivers' life, filled with pioneering triumph, personal tragedy and humor.
9:36 | 09/06/14

Coming up in the next {{countdown}} {{countdownlbl}}

Coming up next:

{{nextVideo.title}}

{{nextVideo.description}}

Skip to this video now

Now Playing:

{{currentVideo.title}}

Comments
Related Extras
Related Videos
Video Transcript
Transcript for Joan Rivers Dead at 81: The Life, Legacy of Comedic Icon
Good evening, tonight, saying good-bye to Joan rivers. Fans still sending messages of support. And Joan rivers in her own words on what she hoped would happen when she died. And tonight, the investigation into what happened during what was supposed to be a routine procedure. Reporter: Tonight, the flowers on the doorstep of the apartment building where Joan rivers lived here in New York. In Los Angeles, on her star on the Hollywood walk of fame. America remembering a legendary comedian now gone. It was just last week the 81-year-old had a packed schedule. Doling out some of that classic celebrity ribbing on her E! Show "Fashion police". Looks like it's going to split at any minute, like beyonce and jay-z. I'm scared! Reporter: Then performing for a nighttime crowd at a New York theater. It was the very next day rivers was undergoing a routine procedure on her vocal cords at a medical clinic when something went horribly wrong. She went into cardiac arrest. Authorities rushing her to new York's mount sinai hospital. Her daughter Melissa, her only child, racing from Los Angeles to be by her mother's side. Prayers for Joan rivers from all over the world. But after a week in the hospital in a medically induced coma, rivers was taken off life support. "Inside edition"'s Deborah Norville, a close friend for nearly 25 years, was right there at the hospital. At a certain point, it was clear that the Joan that we loved was not a Joan that we would get to be with again and I was given the privilege of getting to say good-bye. Reporter: Like so many who were closest to Joan rivers, Norville has unanswered questions about what happened during what was supposed to be a routine visit to a doctor. This wasn't even fixing anything. This was to just look in there and see why her voice had gotten raspy. Shouldn't have happened. Shouldn't have happened. Reporter: The New York state health department has now opened an investigation into the clinic where rivers was having that procedure. Tonight a source tells "ABC news" right now there is no suspicion of wrongdoing. I personally am really grateful to the health department of New York for launching an investigation and asking these questions so that that there will be answers. And so that Joan's family is not in the position of having to wonder or having to drive the process. Reporter: Tonight, the clinic saying they would cooperate with any state review. Within moments of that headline that Joan rivers was gone, a tidal wave of kind words -- tweets pouring in from heartbroken fans and the comedians who came after Joan. Including Ellen DeGeneres who said -- "Joan rivers will always be a pioneer. She paved the way for a lot of comedians. I'm very sad she's gone." Tonight, we focus on her life, one filled with pioneering triumph, personal tragedy, all of it fueling her humor. My wedding, I was supposed bring something black and sexy. Reporter: It wasn't long ago we went to find her down those stairs at a New York comedy club. Joan? Are we bothering you? A career that began nearly 50 years ago when she burst onto the "Ed Sullivan show." Here's little Joan rivers. Reporter: Weren't you pregnant on "Ed Sullivan"? Pregnant and you weren't allowed to say it. Soon, we're going to hear the pitter patter of little feet. And that was breaking ground? That was breaking ground to say pitter patter of little feet. May I say, Mr. Sullivan, I'm delighted to be here. Reporter: Hers was a trailblazing journey. One that day she was also being chronicled by a documentary crew. And there was Joan joking about her own mortality. They're praying that I die during this filming. Wouldn't that be great? Wouldn't that be amazing? They got the last year of Joan rivers. That would give them such a hook. People would watch. People would watch. That's sick. We were there. I know, but it's sick, but very commercial. You'd watch. I'd watch. Reporter: If only she knew the attention, the outpouring of love she would one day receive. And just listen to what she told me backstage. This is the last show. No matter how big you get, don't forget you always walk through the kitchen. We followed her up the stairs for a show. Behind the door a packed crowd half her age. Joan's humor never got old. This is where my career has come to. This? All my other Are getting Kennedy honors. I'm sitting on the stool that's coming apart. Reporter: She also invited us into her New York City apartment. Photographs everywhere. She took us back to her first days on "The tonight show." Her first big break. A man doesn't want to come home after a hard day at the office and find some wild-looking sexy wife lying on a carpet saying, "Hiya, tiger." Yes, he does. Right smack then and there changed my life. Weren't you the first and only permanent host? I was the first permanent guest host, man, woman or child, yeah. And only. Reporter: And that gig would one day lead to an offer to do her own late night show on another network. As soon as I got the fox show, I called Johnny and said, "Johnny, I've got it." And he hung up, hung up on me. Never, never spoke to me again. Reporter: Her show lasted just seven months. It was over and so was her friendship with Carson. And as Joan struggled publicly, her husband was struggling privately. He killed himself in 1987. For years, she would use humor to mask the pain of losing him. Husband left me all the money on the condition I have to visit him every single day. So, I had him cremated and sprinkled at Neiman Marcus. And now sometimes I visit him twice a day. You never saw him so much? Never saw him so much. Weekends, holidays, I'm banging on the door. Humor comes from great pain and great anger is really where it comes from. And with my husband, I had both barrels. I'm still furious at him. They say to me, "Oh, you'll go to heaven and you'll meet Edgar." I'll kill him. Reporter: After the death of her husband, Joan, a single mother, was completely alone and then came a call, a daytime talk show was in the works and other stars had turned it down. She would soon turn her enormous pain into enormous success. The first of many professional reinventions that Joan would undergo. That year at the Emmy's she was up against Oprah and Donahue. And the winner is -- I'm shaking. Joan rivers. Two years ago, I couldn't get a job in this business. I could not get a job. It's so sad that he's not here because if my husband Edgar Rosenberg who always said you can turn things around. Reporter: A decade later, she was back again, being discovered by a new generation of fans. This time on the red carpet with her daughter. Saying and asking anything. Can we see the ring? Sure. Oh, you are a fool. It should be four times this size. You should be ashamed of yourself. I know. People have so much respect for you. They have watched you re-invent yourself along the way. Over, and over and over And there's enormous respect. I think because we're in a business where we don't know where our next job is coming from. You have to constantly re-invent. Also, I'm very shallow and a true whore. I like to try everything. Reporter: She talked openly about her many plastic surgeries in the O.R. Long before many. And how she explained it in the beginning, her daughter was still a baby. Of course, my eyes were black and blue. So, I was carrying Melissa and no one did their eyes in those days. So, people would say to me, "What happened to you?" And I'd say, "The baby punched me in the eyes." And they bought it. People were so stupid in those days. Poor Melissa. Poor Melissa. Kid hit me in the eyes. Reporter: And as we all would learn, behind all of that humor, was her humility. I'm proud of nothing, my darling. I am swimming upstream. I think the key through life is if you don't laugh at yourself, you're an ass, you're a fool. Anyone who doesn't laugh at themselves, they are so out of my book. Reporter: And tonight, her daughter Melissa reminding the world of that same message, offering this statement -- "My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon." And as we would discover in her memoirs, rivers herself knew exactly what she wanted her funeral to look like. I want my funeral to be a huge showbiz affair with lights and cameras, action. I want craft services, I want paparazzi and I want publicists making a scene. I want it to be Hollywood all the way. Don't give me some rabbi rambling on. I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents. I want to look gorgeous, better dead than I do alive. I want to be buried in a Valentino gown. I want harry Winston to make me a toe tag. She would love every bit of this publicity. Joan was the first 15 minutes in all the morning programs today. Joan would love this.

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

{"duration":"9:36","description":"Part 1: A look back at Rivers' life, filled with pioneering triumph, personal tragedy and humor.","mediaType":"default","section":"ABCNews/2020","id":"25307351","title":"Joan Rivers Dead at 81: The Life, Legacy of Comedic Icon","url":"/2020/video/2020-joan-rivers-dead-81-life-legacy-comedic-25307351"}