Joan Rivers Dies At 81: 11 Times The Feminist Comedian Paved The Way For Women in Comedy
The legendary comedian Joan Rivers passed away Thursday, after spending a week at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital following a cardiac arrest episode on the morning of Aug. 28. "It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers," Melissa Rivers said in a written statement Thursday. "She passed peacefully at 1:17 p.m. surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided for my mother."
Rivers has been a household name for decades, after she solidified her stature with frequent comedy sets on late night television and an eventual gig as the permanent guest host for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the early '80s.
But the legacy she leaves behind is a complex one. In her final years, Rivers often gained more attention for bad decisions (like union-busting and underpaying her own staff on E!'s Fashion Police) or merely questionable ones (like appearing on and winning the 2009 season of The Celebrity Apprentice) than for her work as a ground-breaking comedian.
But even if some (or many) of her jokes rubbed you the wrong way, Rivers is worth respecting for her pioneering work as a trash-talking female comedian, paving the way for today's sexually blunt female comedians, like Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, or Natasha Leggero.
But there's more to Rivers' legacy than simply having gotten there first; Rivers was fearless, which sometimes put her at odds with good taste or common sense. But just as often, that sense of fearlessness allowed her to tell the ugly, unvarnished truth about her life as a woman at any age. As Rivers herself said: “Screw kindness. You have to tell the truth, that’s what comedy is all about.”
She was not only a boundary-busting powerhouse, but a compelling contradiction: a brutally insecure insult comic, a painfully shy red carpet host, a performer who broke ground for women while also mocking their bodies and sexuality, often making you wonder who the joke was actually on. In examining her life, we can perhaps make more sense of the contradictions that fill our own.
You don't need to support everything Rivers ever did, or whitewash her checkered history, to appreciate the ways she's challenged societal norms, broken ground for female comedians, and been honest about her own complicated life. Honestly, I doubt that Joan would even have wanted you to. She would just want to know that you were paying attention.
SHE ADDRESSED DOUBLE STANDARDS IN DATING IN 1967
When the second wave of feminism was still nascent, Rivers went on The Ed Sullivan Show to deliver this routine on the double standards society holds for unmarried men and unmarried women — a routine that feels surprisingly (and depressingly) relevant to dating life in 2014.
SHE WAS THE FIRST FEMALE COMEDIAN TO MAKE JOKES ABOUT ABORTION
Even at the very start of her career in the 1960s, Rivers drew material from places where many comedians feared to tread —and that included the reality of abortion in many women's lives. As she told NPR in a 2010 interview:
I was the first one to discuss abortion, and it was very rough. ... And I couldn't even say the word abortion — I had to say, 'She had 14 appendectomies.' ... And by making jokes about it, you brought it into a position where you could look at it and deal with it. It was no longer something that you couldn't discuss and had to whisper about.
SHE WENT AFTER DUMB POLITICIANS ON LIVE TV
Though Rivers' entire career has been marked by controversy after controversy, the gloriously hot water she landed herself in after calling Reagan Cabinet appointee James Watt an idiot at the 1983 Emmys — after Watt had made a dismissive comment about diversity — suggested that her barbs had more political bite, and more power, than she often let on.
SHE WAS THE ONLY WOMAN TO EVER HOST THE TONIGHT SHOW
Rivers appeared on the show frequently as a performer, and was promoted to permanent guest host in 1983, making her the only woman to have ever hosted the iconic late night program to this very day.
SHE PUBLISHED A RAUNCHY BESTSELLER
One of Rivers' most high-profile books in the '80s, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz spent 18 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list in 1984, alongside books by Danielle Steel and Dr. Seuss.
SHE HOSTED HER OWN LATE NIGHT TALK SHOW ON A MAJOR NETWORK
Despite her "permanent guest host status," Rivers was surprised to find that she hadn't made the short list of potential hosts when Johnny Carson began to plan his retirement. So, in 1986, she starred in her own late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers , for the then-fledgling Fox network. It was the channel's first original show, and the first time a woman had hosted her own late night talk show. Rivers was fired after a year, though she eventually went on to host the daytime talk show The Joan Rivers Show, winning an Emmy for "Outstanding talk Show Host" in 1990.
SHE CO-WROTE AND STARRED IN A BROADWAY PLAY ABOUT A FORGOTTEN FEMALE STAND-UP PIONEER
In 1994, Rivers co-wrote and starred in a play about legendary comedian Lenny Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr, who was a stand-up comedian herself and a major (and largely overlooked) influence on Bruce. Rivers was nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the play Sally Marr…and Her Escorts, bringing a largely forgotten piece of women’s comedic history back to life in the process.
SHE STARRED IN A DOCUMENTARY THAT SHOWED OFF HER FLAWS AND INSECURITIES
By the early '00s, Rivers' career had hit the skids — which is probably why she agreed to star in the revealing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a 2010 documentary that invigorated her career even as it revealed the fear, neuroses, and stage fright that colored her daily life. Filmed when Rivers was 76, it marked the rare occasion in our culture when elderly women are depicted as emotionally multi-dimensional — and yes, "rageful" is one of the dimensions we're talking about here.
SHE HAD SEX WITH LOUIE ON LOUIE
One year later, Rivers appeared as herself in a jaw-droppingly good episode of Louie, where she first gives the middle-aged Louie C.K. career advice, and then bangs him (blowing many a mind in the process).
SHE PUBLISHED A BESTSELLING BOOK SO DIRTY, COSTCO WOULDN'T SELL IT
In 2012, Rivers published a collection of anger-fueled one-liners called I Hate Everyone . . . Starting with Me. The title's no joke — as Rivers notes in the book's introduction, "For those of you thinking, Jeez, Joan, you seem a little angry, you're half right. I'm not only angry, I'm fed up … [b]ut being fed up and angry is better than being depressed."
The book — whose best joke, one about nuns and dessert foods, is so foul that I am unable to reprint it here — was not carried by giant-bottle-of-hand-soap-superstore Costco, a point that Rivers protested by showing up at a Burbank location and shouting through a megaphone until the cops were called. At the age of 79, Rivers' near-arrest certainly challenged a lot of ideas about what older women are capable of (like possibly trying to incite a riot at a bulk-buy store).
SHE STARRED IN A WEB SERIES WHERE PEOPLE HANG AROUND IN HER BED
In 2013, Rivers premiered the web series In Bed with Joan, which is exactly what it sounds like — celebrities like Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman get in a tiny bed with Rivers and talk about their lives. Though the premise was raunchy, the show often revealed a softer side of Rivers — like the unexpectedly tender RuPaul episode above.