Ms. Rivers began her career as an actress and then a stand-up. But over time she was many things: a guest host on several talk shows, including the "Tonight Show," where she was a frequent guest; the host of a nighttime and daytime talk show; a recording artist; a game show panelist; a film actress and director; a Broadway actress; a playwright; a red-carpet interviewer; a memoirist; and a member of the fashion police.
Throughout, she suffered many setbacks, both professionally (an estrangement from her mentor Johnny Carson) and personally (the end of two marriages, one by divorce, the other a suicide). But she always managed to stage a comeback, and was as cuttingly funny in her assessment of herself as she was of others. (She titled one album "What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?" and one memoir "I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me.") Frank to a fault, she often admitted to being aggressive, hungry for success and despairing of success. "I'm very competitive," she once said. "And I think that's what has kept me going. I'm not gracious." She was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933, the daughter of Meyer C. Molinsky and Beatrice Grushman, both Russian Jewish immigrants. The family later moved to Larchmont, in Westchester County. She attended Connecticut College and then Barnard, where she took a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. She began acting in the late '50s, at one point playing a lesbian opposite a then-unknown Barbra Streisand in a play called Driftwood. Around this time, she changed her name to Joan Rivers.
She began doing stand-up in Greenwich Village cafes like the Bitter End and The Gaslight Cafe in the early '60s. She first appeared on the "Tonight Show," then hosted by Jack Paar, in the 1960s. But it was under Carson's wing that she became a staple on the late-night talk show. Carson hired her not just as a guest, but as a writer, and groomed her as a regular guest host when he was on vacation.
The professional friendship ended suddenly in 1986 when Ms. Rivers accepted an invitation to host her own late-night talk show on Fox, which would air directly opposite the "Tonight Show." Carson did not find out about the program from Rivers directly and felt betrayed. The two never spoke again, and Rivers was banned from "Tonight," not appearing on the show again until 2014. "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" ended badly as well. Both she and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who was the producer, were fired in 1987. Three months later, Rosenberg committed suicide. Ms. Rivers blamed Fox for his death.
Soon after, Ms. Rivers assumed the role of the mother, Kate, in Neil Simon's Broadway Bound on Broadway. She had made her Broadway debut in 1971 as part of a comedy she co-authored with Rosenberg and Lester Colodny called Fun City. It lasted 9 performances. Her most notable Broadway appearance however was as comic Lenny Bruce's mother in the 1994 play Sally Maar…and her escorts, which she also co-authored. It ran only two months, but won her Tony and Drama Desk nominations.
On stage, television or film, her brand of humor remained the same: rapid-fire, gossipy, self-deprecating and borderline mean. During the '80s, she became associated with the catchphrase "Can We Talk?" and it did seem she liked nothing better than non-stop chatter. Much of her humor, both in the early years and later on, had to do with her looks. (She was the first one to take shots at her own penchant for plastic surgery as she grew older.)
"There is not one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl," she said. "Men don't want you funny. It's all about coping when you're not being the pretty girl, and you're not being the first one asked to dance, and the bottle spins and lands on you and Stuart Wein doesn't want to kiss you."