Joan Alexandra Rosenberg (née Molinsky; June 8, 1933 – September 4, 2014), known by her stage name Joan Rivers, was an American actress, comedian, writer, producer, and television host, best known for her stand-up comedy, for co-hosting the E! celebrity fashion show Fashion Police, and for starring in the reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? alongside her daughter Melissa Rivers.
Rivers first came to prominence in 1965 as a guest on The Tonight Show, a pioneering late-night program with interviews and comedy, hosted by Johnny Carson, whom she acknowledged as her mentor. The show established her particular comic style, poking fun at celebrities, but also at herself, often joking about her extensive plastic surgery. When she launched a rival program, The Late Show, Carson never spoke to her again. She went on to host a successful daytime slot, The Joan Rivers Show, which won her a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host. Her satirical style of humor, however, by focusing on the personal lives of celebrities and public figures, was sometimes criticized. She also authored 12 best-selling memoir and humor books, and provided comic material for stage and television. As an actress, Rivers was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in 1994 for her performance as Sally Marr in Sally Marr…and her escorts.
Rivers died on September 4, 2014 following serious complications—including cardiac arrest—during a procedure on her vocal cords at a clinic on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Early life and education
Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York in 1933, the younger daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants Beatrice (née Grushman; January 6, 1906 – October 1975) and Meyer C. Molinsky (December 7, 1900 – January 1985). Her elder sister, Mrs. Barbara Waxler, died on June 3, 2013, aged 82. She was raised in Brooklyn, and her family later moved to Larchmont, Westchester County, New York. She attended Connecticut College between 1950 and 1952, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and anthropology. Before entering show business, Rivers worked at various jobs such as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a writer/proofreader at an advertising agency and a fashion consultant at Bond Clothing Stores. During this period, agent Tony Rivers advised her to change her name, so she chose Joan Rivers as her stage name.
Jim Connell, Jake Holmes and Joan Rivers when they worked as the team: “Jim, Jake & Joan”
During the late 1950s, Rivers appeared in a short-run play, Driftwood, playing a lesbian with a crush on a character played by a then-unknown Barbra Streisand. The play ran for six weeks. Rivers performed in numerous comedy clubs in the Greenwich Village area of New York City in the early 1960s, including The Bitter End and The Gaslight Cafe, before making her first appearances as a guest on the TV program The Tonight Show originating from New York, hosted at the time by Jack Paar.
By 1965, Rivers had a stint on Candid Camera as a gag writer and participant; she was “the bait” to lure people into ridiculous situations for the show. She also made her first appearance on The Tonight Show with new host Johnny Carson, on February 17, 1965. During the same decade, Rivers made other appearances on The Tonight Show as well as The Ed Sullivan Show, while hosting the first of several talk shows. She wrote material for the puppet Topo Gigio. She had a brief role in The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster. A year later, she had a short-lived syndicated daytime talk show, That Show with Joan Rivers; Johnny Carson was her first guest. In the middle of the 1960s, she released at least two comedy albums, The Next to Last Joan Rivers Album and Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories.
By the 1970s, Rivers was appearing on various television comedy and variety shows, including The Carol Burnett Show and a semi-regular stint on Hollywood Squares. From 1972 to 1976, she narrated The Adventures of Letterman, an animated segment for The Electric Company. In 1973, Rivers wrote the TV movie The Girl Most Likely to…, a black comedy starring Stockard Channing. In 1978, Rivers wrote and directed the film Rabbit Test, starring her friend Billy Crystal. During the same decade, she was the opening act for singers Helen Reddy,Robert Goulet, Mac Davis and Sergio Franchi on the Las Vegas Strip.
Rivers spoke of her primary Tonight Show life as having been “Johnny Carson’s daughter,” a reference to his longtime mentoring of her and, during the 1980s, establishing her as his regular guest host by August 1983. She also hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, on April 9, 1983. In the same period, she released a best-selling comedy album on Geffen Records, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? The album reached No. 22 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album.
During the 1980s, she continued doing stand-up shows along with appearing on various television shows. In February 1983, she became the first female comedian to ever perform at Carnegie Hall. Later that year, she did stand-up on the United Kingdom’s TV show An Audience With Joan Rivers.
Rivers in 1967
In 1984, Rivers published a best-selling humor book, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz, a mock memoir of her brassy, loose comedy character. A television special based on the character, a mock tribute called Joan Rivers and Friends Salute Heidi Abramowitz, was not successful with the public.
The decade was controversial for Rivers. She sued female impersonator Frank Marino for $5,000,000 in 1986, after discovering he was using her real stand-up material in the impersonation of her that he included in his popular Las Vegas act. The two comics reconciled and even appeared together on television in later years.
Also in 1986 came the move that cost Rivers her longtime friendship with Carson, who had first hired her as a Tonight Show writer. The soon-to-launch Fox Television Network announced that it was giving her a late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, making Rivers the first woman to have her own talk show on a major network.
The new network planned to broadcast the show 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. Eastern Time, making her a Carson competitor. Carson learned of the show from Fox and not from Rivers. In the documentary, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, Rivers said she only called Carson to discuss the matter after learning he may have already heard about it and that he immediately hung up on her. In the same interview, she said that she later came to believe that maybe she should have asked for his blessing before taking the job. Rivers was banned from appearing on the Tonight Show, a decision respected by Carson’s first two successors Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. After the release of his 2013 biography on Johnny Carson, Carson’s manager Harry Bushkin revealed that he never received a call from Rivers’ husband Edgar concerning the move to Fox, contrary to what Edgar had told Rivers. Rivers did not appear on the Tonight Show again until February 17, 2014, when she made a brief appearance on new host Jimmy Fallon’s first episode. On March 27, 2014, Rivers returned for an interview.
Shortly after Carson’s death in 2005, Rivers said that he had never spoken to her again. In 2008, during an interview with Dr. Pamela Connolly on television’s Shrink Rap, Rivers claimed she did call Carson, but he hung up on her at once and repeated the gesture when she called again.
The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers turned out to be flecked by tragedy. When Rivers challenged Fox executives, who wanted to fire her husband Edgar Rosenberg as the show’s producer, the network fired them both. On May 15, 1987, three months later, Rosenberg committed suicide in Philadelphia; Rivers blamed the tragedy on his “humiliation” by Fox. Fox attempted to continue the show with a new name (The Late Show) and rotating guest hosts. A year after the Late Show debacle, Rivers was a guest on TV’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. By 1989, she tried another daytime TV talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, which ran for five years and won her a Daytime Emmy in 1990 for Outstanding Talk Show Host. In 1994, Rivers and daughter Melissa first hosted the E! Entertainment Television pre-awards show for the Golden Globe Awards. Beginning in 1995, they hosted the annual E! Entertainment Television pre-awards show for the Academy Awards. Beginning in 1997, Rivers hosted her own radio show on WOR in New York City. Rivers also appeared as one of the center square occupants on the 1986–89 version of The Hollywood Squares, hosted by John Davidson.
In 1994, influenced by the “dirty comedy” of Lenny Bruce, Rivers co-wrote and starred in a play about Bruce’s mother Sally Marr, who was also a stand-up comic and influenced her son’s development as a comic. After 27 previews, “Sally Marr … and Her Escorts,” a play “suggested by the life of Sally Marr” ran on Broadway for 50 performances in May and June 1994. Rivers was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Actress in a Play and a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for playing Sally Marr.
By 2003, Rivers had left her E! red-carpet show for a three-year contract (valued at $6–8 million) to cover award shows’ red carpet events for the TV Guide Channel.
Rivers poses for a photograph at The Pierre hotel in New York City, May 24, 2001
Rivers appeared in three episodes of the TV show Nip/Tuck during its second, third and seventh season, playing herself. Rivers appeared regularly on television’s The Shopping Channel (in Canada) and QVC (in both the United States and the UK), promoting her own line of jewelry under brand name “The Joan Rivers Collection”. She was also a guest speaker at the opening of the American Operating Room Nurses’ 2000 San Francisco Conference. Both Joan and Melissa Rivers were frequent guests on Howard Stern’s radio show, and Joan Rivers often appeared as a guest on UK panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats.
On August 16, 2007, Rivers began a two-week workshop of her new play, with the working title “The Joan Rivers Theatre Project”, at The Magic Theatre in San Francisco. On December 3, 2007, Rivers performed in the Royal Variety Show 2007 at the Liverpool Empire Theatre, England, with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip present.
In January 2008, Rivers became one of 20 hijackers to take control of the Big Brother house in the UK for one day in spin-off TV show Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack. On June 24, 2008, Rivers appeared on NBC-TV’s show Celebrity Family Feud and competed with her daughter against Ice-T and Coco.
Rivers performing in her show at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Rivers and daughter Melissa were contestants in 2009 on the second Celebrity Apprentice. Throughout the season, each celebrity raised money for a charity of his or her choice; Rivers selected God’s Love We Deliver. After a falling out with poker player Annie Duke, following Melissa’s on-air firing (elimination) by Donald Trump, Rivers left the green room telling Clint Black and Jesse James that she would not be in the next morning. Rivers later returned to the show and on May 3, 2009, she became a finalist in the series. The other finalist was Duke. On the season finale, which aired live on May 10, Rivers was announced the winner and hired to be the 2009 Celebrity Apprentice.
Rivers was featured on the show Z Rock as herself; she was also a special “pink-carpet” presenter for the 2009 broadcast of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. She was also roasted in a Comedy Central special, taped on July 26, 2009, and aired on August 9, 2009. From August 2009, Rivers began starring in the new reality TV series How’d You Get So Rich? on TV Land. A documentary film about Rivers, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre on May 6, 2010.
In 2011, Rivers appeared in a commercial for Go Daddy, which debuted during the broadcast of Super Bowl XLV. She made two appearances on Live at the Apollo, once as a comedian and once as a guest host.
Rivers performing at a London Udderbelly event in May 2009
Joan and her daughter premiered the new show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? on WE tv. The series follows Joan moving to California to be closer to her family. She moves in with daughter Melissa while searching for a home of her own. WE tv then ordered a new season consisting of 10 episodes, which premiered in January 2012. In 2011, Rivers was featured as herself in Season 2 of Louis C.K.’s self-titled show Louie, where she performed on-stage. Beginning September 10, 2010, Rivers co-hosted the E! show Fashion Police, along with Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, and George Kotsiopoulos commenting on the dos and don’ts of celebrity fashion. The show started as a half-hour program but expanded to one hour on March 9, 2012. On August 7, 2012, Rivers showed up in Burbank, California to protest that the warehouse club Costco would not sell her New York Times best-selling book, I Hate Everyone … Starting with Me. She handcuffed herself to a person’s shopping cart and shouted through a megaphone. The police were called to the scene and she left without incident; no arrests were made. On March 5, 2013, she launched a new online talk show on YouTube, called In Bed with Joan, in which each week she had a different celebrity guest who “came out of the closet”, and they talked about various topics. The show took place in Rivers’ bedroom, in Melissa’s home in Malibu, California.
On August 26, 2014, Rivers hosted a taping of Fashion Police with Kelly Osbourne, Giuliana Rancic, and George Kotsiopoulos about the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2014 MTV Movie Awards which would be her last television appearance before her death.
The day before her throat surgery, Joan released her most recent podcast of In Bed with Joan, with LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian.
Style of humor
During her 55-year career as a comedian, her tough-talking style of satirical humor was both praised and criticized as being truthful, yet too personal, too gossipy, and very often abrasive. Nonetheless, with her ability to “tell it like it is,” she became a pioneer of contemporary stand-up comedy. Commenting about her style, she told biographer Gerald Nachman, “Maybe I started it. We’re a very gossipy culture. All we want to know now is private lives.”
However, her style of humor, which often relied on making jokes about her own life and satirizing the lives of celebrities and public figures, was sometimes criticized as insensitive. Her jokes about Elizabeth Taylor and Adele’s weight, for instance, were often commented on, although Rivers would never apologize for her humor. Rivers, who was Jewish, was also criticized for making jokes about the Holocaust and later explained, “This is the way I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humor”, adding, “my husband lost his entire family in the Holocaust.” Her joke about the victims of the Ariel Castro kidnappings, similarly came under criticism, but she again refused to apologize, stating, “I know what those girls went through. It was a little stupid joke.”
Rivers accepted such criticism as part of her using social satire as a form of humor: “I’ve learned to have absolutely no regrets about any jokes I’ve ever done … You can tune me out, you can click me off, it’s OK. I am not going to bow to political correctness. But you do have to learn, if you want to be a satirist, you can’t be part of the party.”
Rivers states that seeing Lenny Bruce perform at a local club while she was in college influenced her developing style:
He was an epiphany. Lenny told the truth. It was a total affirmation for me that I was on the right track long before anyone said it to me. He supplied the revelation that personal truth can be the foundation of comedy, that outrageousness can be cleansing and healthy. It went off inside me like an enormous flash.
Comedian Bill Cosby, who was credited with first suggesting to Johnny Carson that he make her a co-host, described Rivers as “an intelligent girl without being a weirdo . . . a human being, not a kook.” Others, including Time magazine, once compared her humor to Woody Allen’s style, of “how to be neurotic about practically everything,” while noting that “her style and femininity make her something special.” Rivers likewise compared herself to Allen, stating: “He was a writer, which I basically was . . . and talking about things that affected our generation that nobody else talked about.”
Her style of comedy was also compared to Johnny Carson’s, as being in many ways starkly contrasting, and one of the reasons he made her co-host. Critic Michael Pollan compared their style:
Where Carson is scrupulously polite, Rivers is bitchy; where he is low-key, she is overheated; where he is Midwest, Waspy and proper, she is urban, ethnic and gossipy. Carson conducts interviews as if he were at the country club; Rivers does hers at the kitchen table.
In her personal life, however, fewer of those neurotic or intense character traits which viewers see on screen, are displayed. Ralph Schoenstein, who dated her and worked with her on her humor books, states, “She has no airs. She doesn’t stand on ceremony. The woman has absolutely no pretense. She’ll tell you everything immediately. Joan isn’t cool—she’s completely open. It’s all grist. It’s her old thing–‘Can we talk?’”
According to biographer Victoria Price, Rivers’ humor was notable for taking aim at and overturning what had been considered acceptable female behavior. By her bravura, she broke through long-standing taboos in humor, which paved the way for other women, including Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O’Donnell.
Rivers was a member of the Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El in New York and stated publicly that she “love[d] Israel”. She was also critical of celebrities who supported Hamas in the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict. Moreover, during an interview with TMZ in August 2014, she said Palestinians “deserved to die” because they had voted for Hamas. She later retracted her statement, saying,
Joan Rivers leaves the hospital with daughter Melissa in January 1968. The father is TV producer Edgar Rosenberg
“I am both saddened and disappointed that my statement about the tragedy of civilian casualties was totally taken out of context. What I said and stand behind is, war is hell and unfortunately civilians are victims of political conflicts. We, The United States, certainly know this as 69 years later we still feel the guilt of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The media, as usual, has decided to only quote the most out of context and inflammatory non sequitur rather than giving an accurate account of what my intentions were behind the statement. Along with every other sane person in this world, I am praying for peace. It is stupid and wrong and I am tired of bearing the brunt of attacks by people who want to sell newspapers or gain ratings by creating a scandal about me that is non-existent.”
Joan Rivers poses with her husband Edgar Rosenberg and daughter Melissa.
However, the hashtag #karma “trended” on Twitter at the time of her death because of her original statement.
Rivers’ first marriage was in 1955 to James Sanger, the son of a Bond Clothing Stores merchandise manager. The marriage lasted six months and was annulled on the basis that Sanger did not want children and had not informed Rivers before the wedding. Her second marriage was on July 15, 1965, to Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987. Their only child, Melissa Warburg Rosenberg (now known as Melissa Rivers), was born on January 20, 1968. Joan had one grandson, Melissa’s son Cooper (born Edgar Cooper Endicott in 2000), who was featured with his mother and grandmother in the WE tv series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?
Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, leave the memorial service for Edgar Rosenberg
In her book, Bouncing Back (1997), Rivers described how she developed bulimia nervosa and contemplated suicide. Eventually, she recovered with counseling and the support of her family.
Joan Rivers and grandson Cooper Endicott.
In 2002, Rivers told the Montreal Mirror that she was a Republican. However, on a 2013 episode of Celebrity Wife Swap, Rivers stated that she was a Democrat. Then, on January 28, 2014, during a conversation with Reza Farahan, she announced that she was in fact a Republican.
Rivers was also a philanthropist. In particular, she donated to Jewish charities, AIDS organizations and animal welfare efforts.
In a June 5, 2012, interview with Howard Stern, Rivers said she had several extramarital affairs when married to Rosenberg. According to Rivers, she had a one-night sexual encounter with actor Robert Mitchum in the 1960s after an appearance together on The Tonight Show. She also had an extended affair with actor Gabriel Dell during the out-of-town and Broadway productions of her play, Fun City, in 1971, for which Rivers told Stern she “left Edgar over” for several weeks.
Joan Rivers the host of E! Entertainment and the show Joan & Melissa Joan Knows Best along with her daughter Melissa Rivers, grandson Cooper
Rivers was open about her multiple cosmetic surgeries and was a patient of plastic surgeon Steven Hoefflin, beginning in 1983. Her first procedure, an eye lift, was performed in 1965 as an attempt to further her career.
Illness and death
On August 28, 2014, Rivers experienced serious complications and stopped breathing during a procedure on her vocal cords, at a clinic in Yorkville, Manhattan. She was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital and was put into a medically induced coma after reportedly suffering cardiac arrest. On August 29, her daughter, Melissa, publicly stated that Joan was “resting comfortably” in the hospital.
On August 30, it was reported that Rivers had been put on life support. Reports initially stated that Rivers’ family might face ending her life support if her condition did not improve. However, on September 1, 2014, an unnamed source told Entertainment Tonight that Rivers’ physicians at Mount Sinai Hospital had started the process of trying to bring her out of the coma the previous day. Prior to that, there had been no further medical updates beyond her daughter’s statement.
On September 3, Melissa issued a brief statement that Rivers had been moved from Mount Sinai Hospital’s intensive care unit into a private room, without any comment concerning Rivers’s condition or prognosis. The following day, she announced via another statement that Rivers had died 13:17 EDT.
• Having a Baby Can Be a Scream. J.P. Tarcher. 1974. (Self-Help/Humor)
• The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz. Doubleday. 1984. ISBN 978-0385293594. (Humor)
• Enter Talking. Dell Publishing Co. 1986. ISBN 978-0440122449. (Autobiography)
• Still Talking. Random House. 1991. ISBN 978-0394579917. (Autobiography)
• Jewelry by Joan Rivers. Abbeville Press. 1995. ISBN 978-1558598089. (Non-Fiction)
• Bouncing Back: I’ve Survived Everything … and I Mean Everything … and You Can Too!. HarperTorch. 1997. ISBN 978-0061096013.
• From Mother to Daughter: Thoughts and Advice on Life, Love and Marriage. Birch Lane Pr;. 1998. ISBN 978-1559724937. (Self-Help)
• Don’t Count the Candles: Just Keep the Fire Lit!. HarperCollins. 1999. ISBN 978-0060183837. (Self-Help)
• Murder at the Academy Awards (R): A Red Carpet Murder Mystery. Pocket. 2009. ISBN 1416599371. (Fiction)
• Men Are Stupid…And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery. 2009. ISBN 141659924X. (Non-Fiction)
• I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me. Berkley Trade. 2012. ISBN 978-0425255896. (Humor)
• Diary of a Mad Diva. Berkley Publishing Group. 2014. ISBN 978-0425269022. (Humor)
1965 Once Upon a Coffee House
1968 The Swimmer
1978 Rabbit Test
1981 Uncle Scam
1984 The Muppets Take Manhattan
1987 Les Patterson Saves the World
1988 Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special
1989 Look Who’s Talking
1993 Public Enemy #2
1994 Serial Mom
2000 The Intern
2000 Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale
2002 The Making and Meaning of ‘We Are Family
2002 Hip! Edgy! Quirky!
2004 Shrek 2
2004 First Daughter
2007 The Last Guy on Earth
2010 Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
2010 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
2011 The Smurfs
2014 The Story of the Swimmer
1968–69 That Show starring Joan Rivers
1972–77 The Electric Company
1973 Here’s Lucy
1973 Needles and Pins
1984 An Audience with Joan Rivers
Guest host Joan Rivers talks with Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) on The Tonight Show on Halloween night 1985
1986 Joan Rivers: Can We Talk?
1986–87 The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers
1988–89 The New Hollywood Squares
1995–2014 Can We Shop?
1997 Another World
2001 E! True Hollywood Story: Joan Rivers
2004, 2007 Jack Dee Live at the Apollo
2004 Dave the Barbarian
2004–05, 2010 Nip/Tuck
2004–06 The Joan Rivers Position
2006 An Audience with Joan Rivers
2006–07 8 Out of 10 Cats
2006 Joan Rivers: Before Melissa Pulls the Plug
2006 Dawn French’s Girls Who Do Comedy
2007 Straight Talk
2008 Shrink Rap
2008 Celebrity Family Feud
2008 Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack
2008 Z Rock
2008 Spaceballs: The Animated Series
2008, 2010 Arthur
2009 Celebrity Apprentice 2
2009 How’d You Get So Rich?
2009 The Comedy Central Roast of Joan Rivers
2009 Celebrity Ghost Stories
2011–2014 Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?
2011 The Simpsons
2012 Joan Rivers: Don’t Start with Me
2012 Hot in Cleveland
1972 Fun City
1988 Broadway Bound
1994 Sally Marr…and her escorts
2008 Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress
2012 Joan Rivers: The Now or Never Tour
• On July 26, 1989, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in the 7000 block of Hollywood Boulevard.