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Rivers, Joan (1933—)

Rivers, Joan (1933—)

Stand-up comedy has become a pillar of popular culture in the late twentieth century. Among the pioneers of contemporary stand-up was Joan Rivers, whose bold, bitchy, self-deprecating humor broke new ground for women comics. Like Lenny Bruce, whose outrageous routines set the tone for a wave of new comedy in the 1960s, Rivers' bravura flew in the face of acceptable female behavior and paved the way for future generations of tough-talking, straight-shooting comediennes.

The daughter of a successful doctor and his hardworking wife, Joan Molinsky was born on June 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York. A smart girl, Rivers' grades were good enough to get her into competitive Barnard College. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English, Joan ended up working as a publicist at Lord & Taylor. But her dream was to become an actress, and so she auditioned for agents all over Manhattan, trying to find representation. But time after time, she was turned away. As Rivers described it, "They told me I had everything needed to be a star, except for looks and talent. After hearing such moving responses, I would wander back to the receptionist and makes jokes to cover the hurt I was feeling. And the receptionists began to tell their bosses that I was funny." Finally, one of the agents offered her a gig at a small stand-up comedy club.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, comediennes were few and far between. Fannie Brice was no longer alive, and the only other women making a living doing stand-up comedy were Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields. Furthermore, Rivers' humor was edgy, raunchy, and often distinctly unladylike. But she was funny. And she was determined to succeed.

For almost seven years, Joan Molinsky, an overweight Jewish girl from Brooklyn, tried to make it in stand-up. She slogged away at small clubs all over the East Coast, even resorting to using the name Pepper January, before permanently becoming Joan Rivers. In the early 1960s, she started working at Greenwich Village coffee shops, telling jokes that pushed the limits of the acceptable. As Rivers herself later wrote, "I was not unaware of my gender. In a routine about how I got into show business, I used to say: 'How do I get booked? My talent? No, I just go into the agent's office and say, 'Hi, I'm Joan Rivers and I put out."' In the late 1960s no woman said such things in public. No woman said that when she had her baby, she screamed for 23 hours straight—and that was just during the conception. And certainly no white woman came onstage after a black male singer and said at the end of his applause, "I'm so glad you liked my husband's act." "Critics felt that such jokes entitled me to another line of work, perhaps in a delicatessen," Rivers remarked.

While Rivers' was getting panned, Lenny Bruce was getting praised for his shocking comedy. One day, Bruce came to see her show and sent her a note backstage. He wrote, "Joan, you're right, they're wrong." Encouraged by Bruce, Rivers' stuck with it. In 1965, her big chance finally came—she was booked on the Tonight Show. Her routine was a hit, and she continued to be asked back on the program.

Rivers frequently joked that her marriage prospects were so grim that her parents hung out a big sign which said, "Last girl before Thruway." In fact, Rivers' marriage to the erudite, Oxford-educated Edgar Rosenberg was a loving, happy union of 22 years. Rosenberg, who also managed Rivers, was her biggest supporter and, with his encouragement, Rivers became a Vegas headliner, a movie producer, and actress in Rabbit Test, and finally, in 1983, the Tonight Show's sole guest host, filling in for Johnny Carson every third week. The now petite blonde was a household name, and her bitchy, self-deprecating humor, which had once been reviled by critics, was now being imitated by young women hoping to follow in Rivers' footsteps. Her signature line "Can we talk?" became ubiquitous.

Although Edgar was sometimes the butt of Rivers's jokes, their marriage was stronger than ever. Despite suffering a heart attack in 1984, Rosenberg orchestrated Rivers' move to a show on the new Fox network, which would be in direct competition with the Tonight Show. But the move provoked Carson's wrath, and with low ratings the show floundered. In 1987, after less than a year on the air, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was canceled. Edgar was distraught and took all the blame on himself. Suffering from a chemical depression brought on by his heart medication, he committed suicide a few months later.

A devastated Rivers' and her daughter Melissa were left nearly broke. A few weeks later, Rivers' agent canceled her contract, saying that no one would book a comedienne whose husband had just died—too unfunny. But Rivers' slowly crawled back into show business, doing gigs at tiny comedy clubs and appearing as the center square on a revival of Hollywood Squares. A year later, she was asked to read for a small part in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound. She leapt at the chance, and she not only won the part but wowed the critics.

Rivers found her way back in front of a national audience with her syndicated daytime talk show, for which she won the 1990 Emmy for best talk-show host. In the mid-1990s, however, she decided to give up the program to do a Broadway play she had written about Lenny Bruce's mother. Sally Marr … and Her Escorts was a critical success, but closed after five months due to financial difficulties. When her popular jewelry business fell apart at the same time, Rivers once again found herself in pieces.

Once again, Rivers bounced back. After reconciling a difficult estrangement from daughter Melissa in the wake of Edgar's death, mother and daughter played themselves in a NBC TV movie called Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, and now the mother-daughter duo appear regularly on E! TV, providing commentary on the Oscars and all the major awards shows. A popular author, Rivers has written three top-selling books, Enter Talking, Still Talking, and Bouncing Back, a humorous self-help memoir.

Like her predecessor in comedy, Fannie Brice, Rivers has survived tragedy through humor. Her petite, ladylike appearance notwithstanding, Rivers is still a tough-talking, funny woman from Brooklyn. Alternately panned and praised, Rivers remains a groundbreaking comic whose unflinching ability to tell it like it is broke longstanding taboos, and whose guts and determination paved the way for other brash women such as Roseanne, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O'Donnell to have their say.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Bellafante, Ginia. "Joan in Full Throat." Time. May 16, 1994.

Rivers, Joan. Bouncing Back. New York, Harper Collins, 1997.

——. "How I Triumphed over Tough Times." McCall's. April 1997.

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