Joan Rivers, An Enduring Comic Who Turned Tragedy Into Showbiz Success, Dies NPR's Eric Deggans says the comedian was a show business survivor whose tireless work ethic kept her relevant long after other comics would have faded away. She died Thursday at 81.
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Joan Rivers, An Enduring Comic Who Turned Tragedy Into Showbiz Success, Dies

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Joan Rivers, An Enduring Comic Who Turned Tragedy Into Showbiz Success, Dies

Joan Rivers, An Enduring Comic Who Turned Tragedy Into Showbiz Success, Dies

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

She was edgy, outrageous and ahead of her time. Joan Rivers was a comedian, TV host, writer, stage actress, director, and her career spanned five decades. Rivers died today of complications following a throat procedure. She was 81. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says Rivers was a show business survivor whose tireless work ethic kept her in the public eye long after other comics would have faded away.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: No one turned tragedy into side-splitting comedy like Joan Rivers, who even built a standup routine around caring for a handicapped boyfriend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOAN RIVERS: I lived for nine years with a man with one leg - one leg. He lost it in World War II - didn't even lose it. He knew exactly where he left it.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Rivers was an expert at using laughs to get past pain. Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in 1933, she ignored her family's objections to become an actress in comedy. She performed in the same New York clubs as Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand, writing lines for more established acts like Phyllis Diller and the puppet Topo Gigio. By the mid-1960s she was appearing in front of the camera for variety programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show," where she talked frankly about women at a time when you couldn't even say the word pregnant on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW")

RIVERS: A girl, you're 30 years old; you're not married. You're an old maid. A man, he's 90 years old. He's not married. He's a catch. It's a whole different thing.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: But it was the late-night host Johnny Carson who would become something of a mentor, featuring Rivers regularly on his "Tonight Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

JOHNNY CARSON: Don't you think men really like intelligence more when it comes right down to it?

RIVERS: Oh, please. Are we going to go back to that? Are you kidding?

CARSON: Well, sure. It's - a brain, you know, a caring person.

RIVERS: No man has ever put his hand up a woman's dress looking for a library card.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Carson made her the show's permanent guest host in 1983. But their friendship would end just a few years later, after Rivers called to let him know she would host a rival late-night show on the Fox network, as she told the archive of American television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RIVERS: I said, Johnny, it's Joan, and I think I'm leaving the show; I have my own show at Fox. And...Click. So then I called him back. And I said, Johnny. And he clicked down again - would not hear me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH JOAN RIVERS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Live from Fox Television Center in Hollywood, it's "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers."

DEGGANS: "The Late Show With Joan Rivers" struggled from its start. She and her executive producer husband Edgar Rosenberg clashed with Fox while she struggled to compete with Carson. A year later, Fox canceled the program, leaving Rivers banned from "The Tonight Show" and looking like a showbiz pariah. Rosenberg killed himself soon after. Rivers told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2012 the toughest thing about old age was seeing loved ones die.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RIVERS: The loss is horrific. And when I go upstairs at night - this sounds so stupid - I always turn to my living room. And I say, goodnight Orin - he was the man I lived with for nine years - and goodnight Edgar. It's terribly sad.

DEGGANS: But she kept going through the '90s, teaming with her daughter, Melissa, to offer biting commentary from the red carpet for Oscar preshows on the E and TV Guide channels. A 2009 documentary on her life, "A Piece of Work," highlighted her drive to stay relevant and youthful. It's opening featured close-up shots of her face without makeup, revealing the nips and tucks of the countless plastic surgery she joked about on stage. The film also revealed how tough she could be taking on a heckler during a performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A PIECE OF WORK")

RIVERS: The only child that I think I would've liked ever was Helen Keller 'cause she didn't talk. And it's just...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's not very funny.

RIVERS: Yes it is. And if you don't believe...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's not very funny if you have a deaf son.

RIVERS: I happen to have a deaf mother. Oh, you stupid [bleep]. Let me tell you what comedy is about.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Go ahead and tell me.

RIVERS: Oh, please. You are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot.

DEGGANS: And the controversies kept coming. Rivers was criticized for calling Michelle Obama a transsexual and saying Palestinian civilians deserved to die in the Gaza conflict. But the fuss didn't stop the work. In her 80s, Rivers still juggled concert performances, a TV show on fashion, an Internet show and promotion for her 12th book. Her attitude was summed up in an appearance on comic Louis CK's FX show, "Louie."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")

RIVERS: Think it's been easy? I've gone up. I've gone down. I've been bankrupt. I've been broke. But you do it. And you do it because - because we love it more than anything else.

DEGGANS: Rivers also remained an inspiration for younger female comics, like Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin, always pushing boundaries, even after a half-century in show business spotlight. Eric Deggans, NPR News.

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