Joan Rivers / Constantly in the limelight and pursued by controversy
Joan Rivers: constantly in the limelight and pursued by controversy
Obituary: The comedian and show host once apologised for an incident concluding in her being taken off air: 'I'm sorry I fucking swore'
By Michael Carlson The Guardian, Thursday 4 September 2014
Joan Rivers poses for a portrait in New York, 1965. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The quintessential acerbic Noo Yawker, the comedian Joan Rivers, who has died aged 81, was identified by the rasping, fingernails-on-the-blackboard voice, which added a frisson to her signature phrase, "Can we talk?" As she aged, her face and her countless cosmetic operations became another trademark, but her cutting wit, often aimed at herself, was the core of her comedy and proved an asset as she moved into hosting talk shows. Later she found a niche, often alongside her daughter, Melissa, interviewing her fellow celebrities and criticising their fashions on the red carpets of the myriad awards ceremonies with which the entertainment industry honours itself.
Inevitably, her sarcasm proved too much for the egos of the stars, although she found a unique way of promoting her one-woman show based on those experiences when she went to London in 2008. Appearing on ITV's daytime gabfest Loose Women, to plug her show Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, Rivers, then 75, said she didn't enjoy interviewing actors such as Russell Crowe. She turned to the camera, said "get the bleeper ready," then called Crowe "a fucking shit". There was, however, no bleeper. Although she bounced back with contrite quips, Loose Women proved rather tighter than advertised, and when the lineup returned from a commercial break, Rivers was gone.
Told that 48 viewers had called to complain, Rivers, aware of British television's vote-rigging scandals that year, demanded a recount. She called it "another milestone" for her career, saying it reminded her of her wedding night because "I got thrown out halfway through that, too." Later she issued an apology, saying: "I'm sorry I fucking swore."
This should not have caught anyone by surprise. As with some other US comedians, notably Jackie Mason, Britain helped to rejuvenate her career, perhaps because she reinforced British stereotypes of typical American behaviour. Reviewing the December 2007 Royal Variety performance, a livid Daily Mail counted Rivers's 13 swear words in her seven minutes before the Queen, starting with: "It's been a shitty day; everyone here's stealing my jokes."
Yet Rivers had longstanding form in Britain; her 1986 BBC chat show Can We Talk? lasted only six episodes and drew reviews ranging from bad to pitiful. She seemed unable to bring her usual acerbic wit to bear on her guests, often leaving her co-host Peter Cook playing straight man to the point of sycophancy, although the show did reunite Cook and Dudley Moore in one episode. Germaine Greer compared her interviewing style to "spiders copulating", while Spitting Image created a Joan Rivers puppet that was a skeleton.
She was born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian immigrant parents, Meyer and Beatrice (nee Grushman). Her father's success as a doctor meant that she had a suburban upbringing in Westchester county. After three years at what was then Connecticut College for Women, she graduated from Barnard College, New York, in 1954 with a degree in English and anthropology. She worked as a department store buyer, and in 1957 married Jimmy Sanger, whom she described as the boss's son. The marriage was annulled after six months, lasting, in her words, "six months longer than it should have". Taking a job as a publicist for another store, Lord & Taylor, she began performing in New York clubs, billed as Pepper January.
Self-deprecation and marital discord were cornerstones of her act. "There is not one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl," she said. "My best birth control is to leave the lights on." She followed in the footsteps of Phyllis Diller, the pioneer of mainstream female standup comedy in America, but if Diller was the yenta (gossip) from hell, Rivers was the Jewish-American princess of your worst nightmares. "Trust your husband, adore your husband, and get as much as you can in your own name," she advised. She performed in a comedy trio, Jim, Jake and Joan, wrote material for the puppet mouse Topo Gigio, a sensation on the Ed Sullivan Show, and performed on The Jack Paar Tonight Show.
Her big break came in 1965, after Johnny Carson took over Tonight from Paar. That year she married the British-born writer and producer Edgar Rosenberg. Soon she was doing primetime shows such as Ed Sullivan, and by 1968, the year Melissa was born, she had her own short-lived talk show in syndication, and a small but excellent part in Burt Lancaster's film The Swimmer. She was a regular writer and performer on Candid Camera, but a play, Fun City, which she and Rosenberg wrote with Lester Colodny, bombed on Broadway, the first of a number of failures of projects she controlled. In 1973 she wrote a TV movie, The Girl Most Likely To ..., which starred Stockard Channing.
She became an in-demand guest for comedy and variety shows and a regular in Las Vegas, opening for the singer Helen Reddy, then one of the town's biggest attractions. Moving to Hollywood, she got the chance to write and direct the 1978 film Rabbit Test, starring Billy Crystal, about a man who gets pregnant. Like her play, it failed to capture an audience.
Again, Carson's Tonight show kept her in the public eye. Starting in 1983, she was Carson's replacement host of choice, a position she called "career Viagra". So much so that, in 1986, the new Fox Network offered Rivers her own late-night chat show. Carson was furious that she would take a competing show, and broke off contact with her; they never spoke again, and even his successors refused to book her. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers lasted less than a year. Rosenberg, who produced her show, fell ill and in 1987 killed himself in a Philadelphia hotel room.
In her book Bouncing Back (1997), Rivers said she became bulimic after her husband's death, and contemplated taking her own life. The book became a made-for-TV movie, Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story (1994). She bounced back by starring in Pee-Wee Herman's 1988 Christmas special; Herman (Paul Reubens) had been the first guest on her Fox programme. In 1989 she began a syndicated daytime chat show that ran for five years. After a move back to New York, she hosted a radio show from 1997 until 2003.
Britain remained a welcoming market for her. She was interviewed by Dawn French for the BBC's Girls Who Do Comedy and was one of Channel 4's 50 Top Comedy Acts. Yet controversy predictably followed her around. Promoting a tour in 2003, she clashed with the broadcaster and columnist Darcus Howe on Radio 4's Midweek. When its host, Libby Purves, opined that Rivers's dream of intermarriage eliminating racism seemed "an American melting-pot approach", Howe snapped that America was "one of the most savagely racist places in the world". When he said Rivers was offended by the term "black", she became enraged. Calling Howe stupid, she attacked the documentary he was plugging as revealing him to be proud of being a poor husband and father, talking so incessantly that she left him struggling to return to championing his film.
British audiences were shocked when Rivers joked that the widows of 9/11 firefighters, who were compensated with $5m payments, would be disappointed if their husbands had been found alive. Defending herself, she pointed out that "my second husband committed suicide and I did suicide jokes". Even so, in 2005 Rivers was one of only four Americans invited to the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles.
By this point, Rivers's act had long since become primarily self-parody. Complaints about her looks had given way to jokes about plastic surgery: "I wish I had a twin, so I could see what I'd look like without it." She played herself on the American TV series Nip/Tuck, and in the cartoon series Futurama appeared as a talking head kept alive for thousands of years.
Her aggressive behaviour on the red carpet, which placed her firmly in the pantheon of gay icons, proved to be too much for both the E! Channel and the TV Guide Channel, which replaced her and Melissa with the anodyne actor Lisa Rinna. Only in America could Rivers reinvent herself as an aspirational brand; she sold her own-label clothing, jewellery, makeup and scent. But it was Britain that provided her with the most dubious highlight of her career; her appearance on Big Brother Celebrity Hijack (2007).
In 2010 she was the subject of a fascinating documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which was a hit at film festivals from San Francisco to London. The following year she moved in with her daughter as part of a reality television show, and co-hosted Fashion Police on E! In 2013 she launched an online chat show, In Bed With Joan.
Rivers once said that comedy was "an angry white man's game. Even if you're Chris Rock or Joan Rivers, you're an angry white man." Looking at one of her classics, "A man can sleep around, but if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she's a tramp," you can see what she meant.
She is survived by her daughter Melissa.
• Joan Rivers (Joan Alexandra Molinsky) comedian and talk show host, born 8 June 1933; died 4 September 2014