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  • Dec 24, 2014
  • Updated: 11:36pm
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OBITUARY

A comedy trailblazer with a caustic tongue: Joan Rivers remembered

Known for her rapier wit and fearless style, Joan Rivers broke into the male-dominated world of comedy, opening a path for female comics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 10:25pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 September, 2014, 3:44am
 

Joan Rivers
1933-2014

Joan Rivers, the caustic stand-up comic and television host who blazed a trail at a time when comedy was all but off-limits to women, has died in New York at the age of 81.

The award-winning star died on Thursday in Mount Sinai Hospital. She had been unconscious since she stopped breathing during an August 28 medical procedure on her vocal cords at a clinic in New York.

New York State Health Department said it was investigating the circumstances surrounding her reported cardiac arrest at Yorkville Endoscopy Centre.

"It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers. She passed peacefully at 1.17pm surrounded by family and close friends," daughter Melissa Rivers said.

Melissa and grandson Cooper had kept a vigil at Rivers' bedside since flying in from Los Angeles as soon as she fell ill.

"My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh," her daughter said. "Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."

Celebrities, including many younger female comics who followed Rivers onto stages once dominated by men, raced to pay tribute to her rapier wit as their inspiration and to express their condolences.

"There are no words. Bon Voyage Joan," tweeted Oscar-winning actress and comic Whoopi Goldberg.

"A legend, a friend, a mentor, an icon, and wildly funny. One of a kind. RIP," said fellow comic Kathy Griffin, tweeting a picture of herself with Rivers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended heartfelt condolences for the loss of an icon who brought laughter to millions around the world and was a vocal supporter of Israel.

The daughter of a well-off Jewish family, Rivers enjoyed a stunningly successful career that lasted decades and worked right up until falling ill last week.

Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, she worked in the fashion industry before starting out in stand-up under the stage name Joan Rivers.

She spared no one her razor-sharp wit and was considered one of the best at delivering a cutting one-liner, and perhaps the most foul-mouthed of a breakthrough generation of US "comediennes". She took aim at celebrities and public figures, joking about modern America's obsession with image and neuroses.

Her catchphrase was "Can we talk?" - an ice-breaker she thought up while on the stand-up circuit in Las Vegas during the 1980s. The joke at the time, she said, "was probably about Elizabeth Taylor being fat, and people gasped and I went, 'Can we talk here?' What you're really saying is, 'Come on, are we going to talk the truth?'"

Tough and tenacious, she supported herself for years with secretarial work until she got her big break on the Tonight Show in 1965. She later worked as a regular guest host for Johnny Carson.

She married one of the NBC show's producers, Edgar Rosenberg, who became her manager. Melissa was born in 1968.

But when she started her own late-night talk show in 1986, on the rival Fox network, it caused a falling-out with Carson that lasted until he died in 2005. Rivers' show was cancelled after seven months.

A few months later, Rosenberg committed suicide and Rivers fell into depression.

Rivers used to say that no subject was off-limits in her comedy: not even her husband's suicide.

"That's how I get through life. God has given us this gift of humour," she told New York Magazine. "Animals don't laugh."

In her 2013 book I Hate Everyone... Starting With Me, Rivers joked about her own funeral, saying she wanted "a huge showbiz affair" with Meryl Streep "crying in five different accents".

But she also sparked controversy over the years with outspoken remarks on the Middle East and, on one occasion, when the butt of her humour were survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks.

In later years, Rivers became as well-known for her love of plastic surgery, taken to excess with her exaggerated cheek bones and her preternaturally wrinkle-free face. She reinvented herself as the host of Fashion Police, a show that offered running critiques of the red-carpet attire worn by the glitterati at the Oscars and other A-list events.

Rivers, who admitted to being a workaholic, said she hoped never to have to cede the stage.

"I'm an addict. It's my drug. I love my work, this is where I'm happiest," she once said.

Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters

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