Today, we all saddened by the passing of a comedic icon, Joan Rivers, in NY at the age of 81. The circumstances of her death are particularly troubling; she suffered complications, including cardiac arrest, during a procedure on her vocal cords, a procedure that one would not expect to be life-threatening. In fact, today, the NY State Health Department announced that it is investigating the matter.
Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born on June 8, 1933 in Brooklyn, NY to Jewish Russian immigrant parents. She had one older sister, Barbara, who pre-deceased her. Joan had a middle class upbringing. Her father was a physician. She was raised in Larchmont, an affluent community in Westchester County. She attended the Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn, Connecticut College and Barnard College, where she graduated in 1954 as a Phi Beta Kappa.
Before entering show business, one of her many jobs was as a “fashion consultant” (an ironic portent) at Bonds Clothing Stores where she met her first husband, James Sanger, a Merchandising Manager at Bonds. The marriage was annulled after six months on the grounds that Sanger did not want children and had neglected to inform Joan of that fact before their marriage. Her second marriage to Edgar Rosenberg was more successful. It lasted until his suicide in 1987.
Shortly after entering show business Joan’s agent suggested that she change her name to Joan Rivers. Why? Perhaps, because it was less ethnic than her real name. Name changes for performers were very common in those days. Why “Rivers?” Well, perhaps the fact that the agent’s name was Tony Rivers had something to do with it. In any event, Joan Rivers was the name by which we all came to know and love her.
Joan was more than just a comedian. She did everything. She was also an actress, writer, producer, and television host. She performed on television, on the stage, and in comedy clubs. She was nominated for six “Emmys” (winning once), one “Grammy,” and one “Tony.” At her peak, she seemed to be omnipresent on television. She sold fashion items on QVC; she was affiliated in some manner with no fewer than ten tv series; she appeared on quiz shows, such as “Hollywood Squares”; she was a “red carpet fashion cop” (“Who are you wearing?”); and, last but not least, she was a frequent guest on late night talk shows, most notably the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson (“Can we talk?”). Recently, while she was living in NY she would fly to LA on Thursdays, record “Fashion Police” at 4 am, and then return to NY that same day. Quite a schedule!
Most people agree that her big break came when she appeared on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1965. Her satirical, sarcastic, irreverent humor was a huge hit. She would poke fun not only at celebrities but also at herself and her husband, Edgar. Nothing was off-limits, even their personal life. I often wondered what Edgar thought of being skewered on national tv. I suspect he was laughing all the way to the bank. Johnny became her mentor. Joan referred to their relationship as “father-daughter.” In August 1983 she became a “guest host” on the show, and there was even speculation that she might replace Johnny when he retired. But, their association ended abruptly in 1986 when Fox lured Joan away to act as host of its newly-developed late night talk show, “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.” When Johnny found out about it, he viewed it as a huge betrayal, and he never spoke to her again.
Perhaps, most significantly, Joan was a pioneer. For example, in 1983 she became the first female comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall; in 1986 she became the first female to have her own talk show on a major network. As with any pioneer, she had to suffer petty and gratuitous indignities and criticisms. Many critics did not appreciate her style of humor. She was called “brash,” “abrasive,” and “too personal.” I believe that part of this was that she went outside the norms of what was considered “acceptable” female behavior at that time. Many were simply taken aback by her. Early in her career, she had a particularly rough time when she performed stand up in comedy clubs where people in the audience could be, and often were, vocal and offensive.
Joan would never apologize for her humor. If it offended you, too bad. She would say “I say what everyone else is thinking!” To her, such criticism was a natural outgrowth of her style of humor. Many people are overly sensitive and simply do not “get it.” Even in today’s era of “political correctness” Joan’s attitude was if you don’t like what I say, change the channel or turn off the tv. I wish more performers would adopt that attitude instead of running scared. Many Americans are way too sensitive. We need to lighten up and laugh more.
She was the inspiration and trail blazer for other female comics, such Ellen De Generis, Rosie O’Donnell and Roseanne Barr, to name a few. Each of these comics, as well as many others, freely acknowledges her contributions. For example, no less a personage than Bill Cosby called her “an intelligent girl without being a weirdo… a human being, not a ‘kook.'” Also, “Time magazine” compared her style of humor to Woody Allen’s.
Remember, it is not easy to be the “first.” For example, think of what Jackie Robinson went through. In my opinion, that is her greatest legacy.
Rest in peace, Joan. Your fans and fellow performers will miss you.