Joan Rivers, comedy pioneer, dies at 81

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San Francisco -- Joan Rivers, who died Thursday in New York, made a career out of invincibility and in the process became a comedy pioneer, author, stage actress, film director, creator of her own fashion line, TV host and a ubiquitous, often polarizing presence in popular culture. Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, announced the death Thursday morning after her mother had been moved to a private room at Mount Sinai Hospital. Melissa Rivers said her mother died surrounded by family and friends.

Ms. Rivers, 81, had stopped breathing and suffered cardiac arrest during minor throat surgery at Yorkville Endoscopy in New York on Aug. 28. She was rushed to nearby Mount Sinai and placed in a medically induced coma.

Ms. Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn June 8, 1933, the younger of two daughters of Russian immigrants, Meyer C. Molinsky, a physician, and his wife Beatrice. The family later moved to suburban Larchmont, NY. After graduating from Barnard College, Ms. Rivers held a number of jobs, including that of a buyer for the Bond Clothing Company where she met and married James Sanger, whose father was a Bond executive. The marriage lasted six months and was annulled, propelling Ms. Rivers back toward pursuing performance at various Greenwich Village comedy clubs.

Her big break in comedy came when she was asked to perform on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” when Jack Paar was still hosting. But it was Paar’s successor whom Ms. Rivers credited with solidifying her career. Ms. Rivers made her first appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1965. Carson invited her back many times and named her permanent guest host of the show in 1983.

Ms. Rivers said in interviews that Carson made a “safe” decision giving her the job because there seemed little likelihood that it would be a stepping stone to getting her own talk show. The idea of a woman hosting a late-night talk show was unheard of then. When Ms. Rivers was making her way around small clubs in the Village in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60s, stand-up comedy was overwhelmingly a man’s game. There had been female comics in the past, notably Gracie Allen who performed as the daffy clown to her husband George Burns’ straight man, but Joan Rivers was a new kind of female comic. From the beginning, Ms. Rivers, like the late Phyllis Diller, pushed the boundaries of what was perceived as proper territory for a female stand-up. She was edgy, direct, brainy and very impolite in an era when those qualities were not considered very ladylike. Virtually every woman working in comedy since the early years of Ms. Rivers’ career is following in her footsteps. Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler, Lisa Lampanelli, Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin and Amy Schumer all carry a bit of Joan Rivers’ comedy DNA every time they step on a stage.

It would take a few years before the Women’s Movement officially began, but Joan Rivers never showed much patience for anything anyway: She was a feminist before the term came into popular usage, and remained one throughout her life and career. Edgy as she was in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, Ms. Rivers stayed on the safe side of “working blue” in TV appearances. By the time of her death, very little was off-limits in her one-liners, although many were ineffectively bleeped on “Fashion Police” and other TV shows.

Carson may have thought he was making a safe choice giving Ms. Rivers the guest host gig, but two years later, Fox offered her own late-night talk show anyway and it touched off one of the darkest periods in Ms. Rivers’ life and career. Ms. Rivers had neglected to tell Carson about the Fox job and Carson took it both personally and professionally. She tried to make amends for the grievance, but he’d already heard the news and hung up on her. The King of Late Night banned her from any future appearances on “The Tonight Show,” an edict which held through the Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien reigns and ended only when Jimmy Fallon took over this year.

The Fox experiment quickly exploded and the network fired both Ms. Rivers and her manager husband, Edgar Rosenberg, a German-born, British-educated film and TV producer whom Ms. Rivers married in 1965. A few months later, Rosenberg committed suicide.

As she had done so often in her career, Ms. Rivers kept moving forward. Fans got a sense of her work ethic in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” which premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2010. The film, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, opens with an extreme close-up of Ms. Rivers’ face, without makeup. For a woman who openly boasted of her numerous plastic surgery procedures, and prided herself on elegant clothes and perfect hair and makeup, it was a shocking moment of bravery. But as the film detailed her overpacked schedule, necessitating being on the road, and on planes, week in and week out, Ms. Rivers’ decision to bare her face for the film was not all that surprising. We learned from the film that work was adrenaline for the then 77-year-old comic. Colleagues on the E! network, where she hosted the weekly “Fashion Police” show since 2010, spoke in recent days about coming in to work mid-morning, and finding Ms. Rivers had already been on the job since 3 or 4 --after flying in from an event the previous night.

Over the years, some of her various projects stuck, others didn’t. When one enterprise ended, Ms. Rivers wasted no time in coming up with something else. She did standup, she wrote and starred in a Tony-nominated play about Lenny Bruce’s mother, she won “Celebrity Apprentice,” created her own fashion line which she personally hawked on QVC, she wrote best-selling books, coined the phrase “can we talk” as a warning that the conversation was about to become direct, and she was nominated for a Tony, Grammys, and Emmys (she won an Emmy). Before “Yentl” was more than a gleam in Barbra Streisand’s eye, Ms. Rivers wrote and directed her own film, “Rabbit Test,” starring Billy Crystal, in 1978. She feuded very publicly with other celebrities and was often good for unfiltered opinions on controversial issues. When asked by a TMZ reporter to comment on the deaths of 2.000 Palestinians in the recent Gaza conflict, Ms. Rivers snapped, “Oh my God! Tell that to the people in Hiroshima. ... 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. Don’t you dare make me feel bad about that.”

Still, the private Joan Rivers, according to many people, was an entirely different person, a genuinely warm, highly intelligent woman who was far more interested in what others had to say than in unleashing a barrage of one-liners to draw attention to herself. Say what you will about Joan Rivers -- and many did, in no uncertain terms on social network-- she was a pioneer, a major influence on American comedy, especially for female performers, and, almost to the very end, a survivor. She beat the odds almost every time. And when she didn’t, she’d get up and beat them the next time.

Ms. Rivers is survived by her daughter, Melissa Rivers, and her grandson, Cooper Endicott. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle’s executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: Twitter: WaitWhat—TV

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