The comedian Joan Rivers, whose mastery of the acid one-liner never wavered in a career that spanned five decades and many more surgical procedures, died on Thursday, aged 81.
“It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers,” her daughter, Melissa Rivers, said in a statement. “She passed peacefully at 1.17pm surrounded by family and close friends.”
Rivers suffered a cardiac arrest during throat surgery on her vocal cords at an outpatient clinic in New York on 28 August. She was rushed to Mount Sinai hospital on the Upper East Side, and was moved from its intensive care unit into a private room on Wednesday. She never regained consciousness.
In the almost 50 years since she burst onto the scene on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Rivers ascended to the pinnacle of American showbusiness – even as she skewered its excesses with her scathing wit.
A workaholic, Rivers had been hosting an online weekly talk show called In Bed with Joan, and had just filmed a special award-show episode of E!’s Fashion Police before being taken ill. She was frequently performing live stand-up, and had finished the fourth season of Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best, the reality show in which she starred with her daughter.
“If there’s a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do,” Rivers said in 2012. “It’s my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That’s my rush. I get it nowhere else.”
Rivers never made a secret of the cosmetic procedures that significantly altered her looks. Instead, they became a source of material for her act. “I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they’ll donate my body to Tupperware,” she once said.
Melissa Rivers travelled to New York from Los Angeles with her son Cooper after her mother fell ill. “Cooper and I have found ourselves humbled by the outpouring of love, support and prayers we have received from around the world. They have been heard and appreciated,” she said in a statement.
“My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that’s difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”
The New York city department of health is investigating the circumstances that led to the cardiac arrest suffered by Rivers last Thursday. She was undergoing a minor throat procedure at Yorkville Endoscopy, which was established in 2013 and describes itself as a “state-of-the-art” facility. The health department investigation is said to be routine.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Rivers worked the New York comedy scene alongside Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Woody Allen. Her big break came with an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1965, where she quickly became an audience favourite. Live on air after her first appearance, Carson said: “You’re gonna be a star,” and he became her close friend and mentor. She went on to appear on a galaxy of other TV shows, including The Carol Burnett Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as performing live in New York and Las Vegas, and recording several comedy albums.
At the same time, she was also a prolific humour writer; she wrote the films The Girl Most Likely To... and Rabbit Test. In 1974 she released Having a Baby Can Be A Scream, the first of 12 books including the best-selling The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz.
In 1983, she became the first female comedian to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where she was billed as a “semi-legend”. One of her most on-target jokes, a student reviewer for the Columbia Daily Spectator reported earnestly, was a description of Mick Jagger as a man whose “child-bearing lips can French-kiss a moose”.
In 1986, the newly created Fox network offered her her own late-night vehicle, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers – a competitor to Carson’s show, broadcast at the same time. He famously never forgave her, and banned her from appearing on The Tonight Show – an edict that stayed in effect long after his death. She did not appear on the show again until March this year, when when the rift was healed by its current host, Jimmy Fallon.
A wildly energetic performer, as comfortable on stage as on screen, Rivers was still playing to huge, packed auditoriums such as London’s Albert Hall as recently as 2012, where, at the age of 79, she performed for 11 nights to sellout crowds and rapt applause.
“What pleasure you feel when you’ve kept people happy for an hour and a half,” she wrote in an article in the Hollywood Reporter in 2012, after the Albert Hall run had finished. “They’ve forgotten their troubles. It’s great. There’s nothing like it in the world. When everybody’s laughing, it’s a party. And then you get a check at the end. That’s very nice.”
She recently moved to California to be closer to her family, a move that, like many other parts of Rivers’ life, was chronicled on Joan & Melissa. Her brusque humour frequently targeted celebrities, as well as herself. Her no-holds-barred attitude would also push the line. Perhaps her most controversial comments were among her most recent: earlier this month, the celebrity news website TMZ released footage in which she apparently celebrated the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza.
Told that nearly 2,000 Gazans had been killed in the conflict, she shot up her arms and said: “When you declare war, you declare war. They started it. We now don’t count who’s dead. You’re dead. You deserve to be dead. You started it. You started it. Don’t you dare make me feel sad about that.” She later claimed the media had taken the tirade out of context.
In her later career, Rivers became known for hosting live shows that chronicled the red-carpet arrivals of celebrities to awards ceremonies. The first of them was in 1994 for the E! Entertainment Network, and she quickly became an institution at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Grammys. The scourge of celebrities, Rivers could bring anyone crashing to earth with a slingshot put-down.
“For decades, Joan has made people laugh, shattered glass ceilings, and revolutionised comedy,” the E! network said in a statement. “She was unapologetic and fiercely dedicated to entertaining all of us, and has left an indelible mark on the people that worked with her – and on her legions of fans.”