Today, the world lost one of the true greats. Legendary comedian Joan Rivers passed away today in NYC at the age of 81, following complications from an in-patient throat procedure during which she stopped breathing. She was surrounded by her family and friends at the time, Rivers' daughter Melissa confirmed in a touching statement, and she passed peacefully. There aren't adequate words to explain what an important figure in entertainment that we have lost today, and there likely won't ever be — Rivers was just that one of a kind.
It's no secret that Rivers changed the face of comedy when she began on the scene back the '50s, and she truly helped mold it into what it is today. Rivers paved the way for the outrageous comedy of women like Chelsea Handler, or Kathy Griffin, decades earlier. There's long been a well-known feud between Rivers and Handler on the subject of women in late night, but the truth is, without Rivers, women in the comedy world, especially late night, would be entirely different.
"[Handler] came out saying things like, 'I'm the first woman ever to do a late-night show.' She did this one day, and I followed her on the dais and I said, 'I guess everyone's forgotten the [Johnny] Carson show,'" Rivers told The Huffington Post just this past July. "She never spoke to me again."
Rivers is right, though — she was the first woman in late night, and she was decades before Chelsea Lately was even a series. Rivers influenced late night television, and gave us comedians like Handler in the process.
Back in the 1983, Rivers began occasionally guest-hosting The Tonight Show for former host Johnny Carson, who had initially hired her to be a writer for the show. Her natural charisma and talent soon led the Fox network to offer her a late night show of her own that would be in competition with Carson's, The Late Show With Joan Rivers (note: not the same Late Show currently held by David Letterman on CBS) in 1986. Rivers took it, angering Carson who felt betrayed that she didn't talk to him about it first, and their friendship was severed — he blacklisted her from the show, a decision that was upheld by succeeding hosts Jay Lano and Conan O'Brien, until Jimmy Fallon lifted it and invited her to the show in March of this year.
With The Late Show With Joan Rivers, she ran into her own set of problems as well: Rivers' comedy has always been shocking, and that was especially true for the landscape of television in the '80s. Some networks refused to carry the show because of its content (specifically Boston's Fox affiliate, which was previously owned by the Christian Broadcasting Network). Rivers' stint with the show only lasted a year due to this, as well as disagreements between her and Fox, and she was fired in 1987.
Rivers was still a pioneer in late night television despite the show's issues, though — first with The Tonight Show, then with The Late Show — because she set a precedent for women in comedy with outrageous material. Without her, E! may not have picked up Chelsea Lately, and who knows Handler's career would be now.
Comedy owes a lot of things to Rivers, but giving strong female comedians someone like her to look to was truly one of her most infuential accomplishments.