Joan Rivers

Stand-Up Comedian Joan Rivers

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AKA: Joan Molinsky, Pepper January

Born: June 8, 1933

Death: September 4, 2014

Blue Meter: Risqué

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41.53%

Won: 1366 | Lost: 1923

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Videos

All video pulled from YouTube.

Joan Rivers Live At The Apollo Part 1
Joan Rivers Live At The Apollo Part 1 Watch
Joan Rivers - Stand up comedy, 1974
Joan Rivers - Stand up comedy, 1974 Watch
Live at the Apollo with Joan Rivers [ Scott Gill in front row ]
Live at the Apollo with Joan Rivers [ Scott Gill in front row ] Watch

Works

Records

2013 Don't Start with Me
1990 The Best Of Comic Relief '90

This album is a compilation, featuring multiple comics.

1983 What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?
1970 The Next to Last Joan Rivers Album
1965 Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories

Specials (and other video)

2012 Joan Rivers: Don't Start With Me
2010 Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Documentary about a year in the comedian's life

2006 Joan Rivers: Live at the London Palladium
2006 An Audience with Joan Rivers
2006 Joan Rivers: Before Melissa Pulls the Plug
2004 Live at the Apollo
1992 Joan Rivers: Abroad in London
1991 Comic Relief IV

Benefit show that features multiple comics.

Books (by and about)

2014 Diary of a Mad Diva
2012 I Hate Everyone… Starting with Me
2002 The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America
2000 Don't Count the Candles: Just Keep the Fire Lit!
1997 Bouncing Back: I've Survived Everything... and I Mean Everything... and You Can Too!
1991 Still Talking
1987 Having a Baby Can Be a Scream
1986 Enter Talking

Co-author: Richard Meryman

1984 The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz

Jokes

My husband killed himself. And it was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head.

Biography

For a long time, Joan RIvers defined women in stand-up comedy, opening it up even further after Phyllis Diller. She marked for the path for later female comics like Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin to follow.

Rivers was born as Joan Molinksy, daughter of Russian immigrants. Rivers grew up in the affluent suburb of Larchmont, New York, where she felt she came up short compared to the other girls, believing herself to be overweight.

Her aspirations were to show business, which scandalized her parents. Despite some small opportunities post-high school, Joan Rivers dutifully completed her education at Barnard College, graduating with a BA in 1954. After graduating, Rivers attempted to not pursue her passion for performing by taking a job as a buyer in a department store and even marrying the boss’ son. It wouldn’t take. That early marriage ended in divorce after six months.

For several years, Joan attempted to find her way through the business. She performed stand-up in strip-clubs as comedienne “Pepper January.” She moved to Chicago and become part of Second City in 1960. She joined a sketch-comedy team called “Jim, Jake and Joan.” The humor of the trio became restrictive and shallow to Rivers, pushing her to attempt a new style of performing when she returned to solo performing.

Something was happening at the time. Lenny Bruce was ascendant, crafting a new style of comedy that was aspired to be more truthful. Rivers first saw Bruce performing in New York City’s Village Vanguard in 1962. Bruce inspired Joan to be more frank about her own life and find comedy in that. She later said, “I learned from Lenny that you could tell the truth on stage.”

In 1964, on the suggestion of an agent, Joan changed her name to Joan Rivers. But more importantly she changed her act. Though Rivers had similar dismissive remarks about her appearance to Phyllis Diller, the style they were performed in took them out of the borscht belt and made more personal. She told her jokes to audiences like they were friends that she was confiding something once painful but now funny, often introducing them with “Can we talk?” Her act also played with the surreal, with joke about her blonde wig as a pet that got run over by a car and a houseplant that would drink her soup.

Despite the fresh take, Rivers hit a glass ceiling. She watch contemporaries of hers, like George Carlin and Bill Cosby, appear on TV while she still worked the club circuit. Age also was a factor, as Rivers was over 30, a number that can mark a comic as one who will never quite make it.

That would be changed by The Tonight Show. Turned down seven times, she finally got booked, thanks in part to a good word put in for her by Bill Cosby. Johnny Carson finally gave her national exposure in February of 1965, but as a “comedy writer.” Despite not performing her stand-up, RIvers hit it off with Carson, bringing him to tears with laughter. The Tonight Show then had her back again and again, subsequently booking her eight times in as many months. Headlining gigs at clubs like the hungry i and the Bitter End followed as well.

She became a solid name in stand-up and wrote a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune between 1973 and 1976 and a best selling book “Having a Baby Can Be a Scream” in 1974. She wrote the TV movie “The Girl Most Likely To,” but recalled that she threw up after watching the finished product: “How’s that for liking yourself?” The show was the highest-rated made-for-TV film ever made up to that time, but she’d suffered to create it. When she made her first theatrical film, “Rabbit Test,” she suffered even more, working furiously during production and in endless stressful promotion. The reason was not only her hyper personality; she and her husband invested their savings and mortgaged their home to make it.

In stand-up, Rivers’ self-deprecating comedy began to change. Now that she was a star, she confided to her audience about the stars she was meeting. Her gossipy little swipes at celebrities drew huge laughs. The anger that Joan had long turned inward was now set on the pompous and the pretentious. A dieter who suffered to keep her weight off, Joan naturally tossed jokes at Elizabeth Taylor, a beautiful woman who was letting herself go: “She has more chins than a Chinese phone book.” With her catch-phrase (now a government registered trademark) “Can we talk?” Joan told her truths—wild, exaggerated, sometimes strident, but truths nevertheless.

Audiences roared and wanted more. The more outrageous she was, the more successful she became. In 1983 Joan was named permanent guest host on “The Tonight Show” for Johnny Carson’s nine weeks of vacation time. Her monologues became wilder and wilder, the audience cheering the most daring and at times tasteless remarks. Joan, one of stand-up’s nicest, most sensitive, most caring stars, got caught up in all this, logically believing that at worst, she was simply giving people a good laugh. At best, she was a crusader. After all, wasn’t it after the insults that Liz Taylor went on a diet that brought her front-page magazine coverage?

The workaholic performer wanted laughs and applause, and if this kind of comedy was what the audience demanded in return for it, Joan would give it. She had a 1983 Grammy-nominated record, her own a line of greeting cards, and in 1984 a silly book of sex jokes based on a slut character she invented, “The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz,” sold over half a million copies. Her autobiography, “Enter Talking” also was a best seller. Her voice was now perpetually hoarse from her non-stop concert schedule.

Clearly a comedy superstar, Rivers was shocked to learn that in the event of Johnny Carson’s retirement, she was not even on the “Top Ten” list of replacements. She joined the Fox network, receiving a contract for three years and ten million dollars. When she phoned Johnny Carson to tell him—he hung up on her. He’d already heard the news and was fuming over her “betrayal” of him. The Carson-Rivers feud was front page news, simmered over the next month by Rivers’ pre-scheduled promotions for her autobiography, and then set ablaze when her new show went on the air.

In October of 1986 the show premiered successfully and had good ratings in key cities, but the network didn’t have as many affiliates as NBC and Carson. Joan’s ratings couldn’t match his, and the panic at Fox and their subsequent interference with Joan and her husband, producer Edgar Rosenberg, led to endless misery and stress. In May of 1987 Fox fired Rivers, sending her star status hurtling downward. Three months later, physically ill and emotionally devastated, Rosenberg killed himself in a Philadelphia hotel room. No one could possibly put into words what Joan Rivers went through. But a writer named Ben Stein in GQ magazine gave it a shot. Using an assumed name, he described Rivers as joking about Edgar’s death and intimating she was about to divorce him anyway. Weak with grief and trembling with shame and rage, Joan Rivers tearfully read a prepared statement vowing to fight back and file charges. Eventually the magazine settled out of court issuing a statement regretting “any inadvertent imputation of negative or inappropriate conduct.”

By all accounts not only alone but “terrified,” Rivers was not only without a husband but without the man who managed her career for the past two decades. She gave up her California home and moved to New York, busying herself with the chores of setting up her new living quarters. She tried to anchor herself with the best therapy possible: a return to work. She became the “center square” on the quiz show “The Hollywood Squares.” On June 21, 1988 she joined the cast of “Broadway Bound.” This was her first major appearance as an actress, and she was taking up the challenge at a fragile time in her life. She met the challenge, winning impressive reviews from the tough New York critics.

In stand-up Joan returned to a mix of self-deprecation and saucy wisecracks: “Girls on the beach in string bikinis- - it looks like they’re flossing their behinds.” “There are no lesbians in prison. They’re in pro tennis.” “A robber broke into my house and said, “One bark and you’re dead.” “John F. Kennedy Jr.? Dumb! He failed the (bar) exam twice and one of the questions was name a dead President.”

The emotional star did not hide her tears during interviews, nor did she deny that the highs of her comeback were just the flip side of painful lows. “I am out of control but I’m always out of control,” she told People magazine, “I am scared the apartment will never be ready. I am scared my career will not continue to grow. I hate getting old. I have few real friends. I’ve had nightmares. I am scared I’m squandering all my money…losing it. I am fat, old, ugly and scared.”

She kept going. She had once been a success as a talk show host. She tried again. Her daytime show, a mix of jokes, girl talk, and emotional interviews with stars and people with dramatic or tragic stories to tell, earned her praise and a solid viewership. In 1989 she earned a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in June of 1990 an Emmy award. In a moving acceptance speech she declared, “I didn’t think I was going to win. I’m not being cute—I have no speech prepared…Two years ago I couldn’t get a job in this business. I could not get a job. My income dropped to one-sixteenth of what it was before I was fired. And people said I wouldn’t work again. And my husband had a breakdown, and it’s so sad that he’s not here, because it was my husband Edgar Rosenberg who always said, “You can turn things around.” And except for one terrible moment in a hotel room in Phialdelphia when he forget that…”

Through the tears she continued, “This is really for him. Because he was with me from the beginning. And I’m so sorry he’s not here today.”

The audience wept with Joan Rivers as they had so often laughed with her. They laughed with her when she first started out as “the female Woody Allen.” And they followed her as she adapted Lenny Bruce’s principles to her own lifestyle and personality, creating her own comic truths and outrages, simultaneously tough and yet warm and vulnerable. And they applauded her even more when she emerged as a unique comic star with her own identifiable style.

Joan Rivers once said, “My whole career has been just hard, hurting little steps.” But those little steps were always forward.