An appreciation of Joan Rivers, dead at 81

A comedian whose plastic surgeries, scabrous wit and insults hid her true grit

Joan Rivers in Beverly Hills in 2013. While younger generations might remember her for her plastic surgery and scabrous humor, she is cherished by others as a female comic who broke boundaries.
Gregg DeGuire / Wireimage / Getty Images

Here’s the thing about Joan Rivers: She was a nice person. This completely goes against her public persona, but it’s true. She was nice. Gracious, in fact. Not something one expects from a woman who built her career on bitchiness, but there it is.

Talking to her could be like talking to an old family friend, especially if you were a tribe member from Noo Yawk. For many of us, she ushered in our youth. Seventies babies might remember her as the pebbly-voiced narrator from the The Adventures of Letterman, the syntactical superhero on “The Electric Company”: “Faster than a rolling O, stronger than silent E, able to leap capital T in a single bound. It’s a word, it’s a plan, it’s … Letterman!” (no relation to David).

In the early ’80s, there she was on “The Tonight Show,’’ her blond pouf molded into an oblong helmet, a strand of pearls dangling against a black sheath. She first appeared on the program way back in 1965. Like all female comics at the time (there weren’t a lot of them), she lobbed her lacerating barbs inward. She poked fun at her homemaking skills, her inability to find a good husband, her undesirability.

“My vagina is like Newark,” she quipped. “Men know it's there, but they don't want to visit.”

She quickly became a favorite of Johnny Carson’s, who proclaimed on air, “You’re gonna be a star!” Soon, she was performing opening monologues and guest hosting.

She was still her own best target, but she shifted her caustic jabs elsewhere. She prided herself on saying all the things everyone wanted to say but couldn’t. Stewardesses — that’s what they were called back then — were “high-altitude hookers.” Elizabeth Taylor had “more chins than a Beijing phone book.” Her (fictional) former BFF Heidi Abromowitz, later immortalized in the book “The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz,” was an uber-tramp.

“When Heidi had her braces removed,” Rivers said, “the entire football team sent her orthodontist a thank-you note.”

Clearly, Rivers had a big mouth, and sometimes her judgment was askew. She called Michelle Obama a “tranny” and told TMZ that the Palestinians “deserve to be dead.” Hamas, she said, was “re-elected by a lot of stupid people who don’t even own a pencil.”

Twitter exploded. In a Facebook statement, Rivers said that her words had been taken out of context. “Along with every other sane person in this world, I am praying for peace,” she said.

Not PC, our Joan.

A tough broad

Though her humor offended many a person, she didn’t care. “Oh, grow up!” she’d rasp, and the audience would explode.

She was a tough broad. But she had to be. You don’t grow up in Larchmont, New York, with a name like Joan Alexandra Molinsky and embark on an acting career without developing asphalt-soaked skin. When it became clear that she was never going to give Vanessa Redgrave a run for her money, she gave comedy a try — equally unexpected for a Phi Beta Kappa Barnard girl. That single-eyed determination carried her throughout her career, whose ups and many downs were broadly chronicled. But that’s the curse of the trailblazer, especially one who is ambitious, bawdy and female.

Most people know about her heartrending split from her mentor, Johnny Carson, a father figure who was largely responsible for her rise. In 1983 she became his permanent replacement host. A few years later, Fox offered Rivers her own show, which would compete with his. She accepted. Carson never spoke to her again.

Joan Rivers with her mentor, Johnny Carson, on “The Tonight Show,” where she was a regular, then the guest host. After she accepted an offer for her own show on another network, he never spoke to her again.
NBCUniversal Media / Getty Images

Never mind that this was a huge deal for anyone, let alone a woman. But women weren’t supposed to be driven in that way. “Everybody left the show to go to do their own shows,” Rivers told The Hollywood Reporter. “Bill Cosby. David Brenner. George Carlin. Everybody. I stuck around for 18 years. And they finally offered me my own late-night show.”  

The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” premiered in October 1986 and was canceled in May 1987. When she stood up to the suits at Fox, who wanted to get rid of her husband-turned-manager, Edgar Rosenberg, they were both fired. Rosenberg committed suicide that August.

Humor helped her cope. As she told me in a story I wrote on female comics for Psychology Today, “I do Holocaust jokes to remind people, ‘You asses, it happened.’” After 9/11, she zeroed in on the widows. “Everyone was so grim,” she said. “I joked about how happy some wives must have been to get $5 million and not have Harry come home. It was general, not specific. I never want to hurt anyone.”

After Rosenberg’s death, Rivers did a 22-minute routine on suicide. “My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love, and I took the bag off my head.” Ouch.

Seven years later, she and her daughter, Melissa, now 46, played themselves in a TV movie, “Tears and Laughter.” The film didn’t get great reviews, but as Variety noted, it was “curiously absorbing … because it’s about something bigger than its stars.”

And a grande dame

Rivers not only survived but thrived. She relocated from L.A. to New York and remade herself into an author, an entrepreneur, a Tony-nominated Broadway actress, a TV personality who won a daytime Emmy, an icon. She performed right up until the day she died at the age of 81, traveling to small clubs and venues across the country. She still laughed at herself, joking about the “739” plastic surgery procedures she had undergone. On E’s “Fashion Police,” she got to let her catty opinions rip freely. Audiences expected this of her. They loved her for it. 

And speak to those who knew her — nurses, cameramen, writers, family members — and they had only good things to say: how kind she was to them, how generous. A few years ago, I ran into her in the lobby of a New York theater. I wasn’t sure it was her; she was draped in a big fur coat, diamonds dripping from her ears, and her face did not move an inch. She looked like, well, a tranny. I walked right up to her, introduced myself and told her that I had interviewed her for a magazine story on grandes dames.

She extended her hand, and like the Westchester hostess she was bred to be, trilled, “Sooo nice to see you again!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we’d actually never met in person. 

A few months ago, I interviewed her for the Psychology Today piece. I reminded her of that long ago story, and she seemed to remember it. (Who knows if she did? She was an expert at bull.) Not long after that, my editor and I went to see her perform at a theater in Manhattan. She joked about getting old, noting that she was thinking of starting Feels on Wheels, a company that would deliver sexual favors to the elderly. She ended as she always did, asking audience members to donate to God’s Love We Deliver, which provides meals for people with AIDS and other serious illnesses. (She also raised millions for other charities.)

After the show, we visited her in her supply closet cum dressing room. “Glamorous, huh?” she said. She was small and thin, and her smile still resembled the Joker’s, immobile. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and turned to my editor. "She was a great interviewer!” she said, pointing a finger my way. “She asked really smart questions. You’re lucky to have her.”

It wasn’t true; it’s not as if I had been researching Watergate, after all. But it was really good of her to plug me in front of my boss. She didn’t have to.

“You’re a nice person,” I told her.

“Yeah,” she said sarcastically. “Really nice.”

But she was. She had a role to play, and she played it beautifully. But ultimately, she was a good egg.

I wish I could hear her thoughts on death. I can only imagine it. “I had a medical procedure on my vocal cords, and I went into cardiac arrest,” she might say. “Too bad it wasn’t another face-lift. I don’t want God to have a heart attack when I show up.”

Abby Ellin is a writer in New York who can be found at

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