Joan Rivers, the brassy grande dame of American comedy who died Thursday at 81, is being remembered by a veritable Hall of Fame of stars — from old-school comics wowed by her blistering barbs on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” to young admirers reared on the E! network, where she mercilessly skewered fashion and celebrities.
In a dizzying career that ran more than a half-century, Rivers reinvented herself constantly, breaking boundaries and winning new fans with every passing decade.
An indomitable show business lifer
Rivers was an insatiable careerist whose resume reads like a sweeping history of post-war popular culture. Don Rickles, a fixture of the 1950s stand-up circuit where Rivers honed her craft and perhaps the only living legend who rivals her longevity, said “working with her and enjoying the fun times of life with her was special.”
Carol Burnett said Rivers was “the poster child for the Energizer Bunny,” a reference to her boundless work ethic during a career that stretched from the glitzy Golden Age of TV to the era of Twitter trolling.
A feminist pioneer
She laid a path for female comedians at a time when the profession was monopolized by men, scoring a much-coveted role as permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show." In 1986, she made TV history as the first female host of a late-night talk show with her own short-lived series on Fox.
"What a full life," said Amy Poehler, the star of “Parks and Recreation” and a former player on “Saturday Night Live.” She added: “Every woman in comedy is indebted to her. She was there at the beginning to the end."
Rivers’ free-wheeling, foul-mouthed riffs on sex, celebrity and her hours under the knife paved the way for candid comics like Sarah Silverman and TV series like HBO’s “Girls.” Kathy Griffin, a controversial comedian in the Rivers mold, called her “a legend, a friend, a mentor, an icon.”
A fearless comic
Rivers earned cheers and jeers for her take-no-prisoners comic style, a blend of vaudeville theatricality and tabloid snark.
David Letterman praised Rivers for the way she wielded her wit like a weapon. "Talk about guts," he said during a taping of “The Late Show” on Thursday afternoon. "She would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just where you would have to swallow pretty hard. But it was hilarious. The force of her comedy was overpowering."
Ricky Gervais, no stranger to acid-tongued comedy, called her “funny & fearless.” And even a star who had been on the receiving end of Rivers' rapiers wit mourned her passing. Anna Kendrick tweeted: "Being publicly told that my dress is hideous will never feel quite as awesome. You will be truly missed."
A vital voice — even at the end
Rivers was a household name even in her final years as a fixture on cable TV and late-night talk shows. She lobbed verbal bombs at starlets on the red carpet, commanded the “Fashion Police” on E!, riffed with Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show," and guest-starred on a memorable episode Louis CK's series on FX.
"I love the Internet, and I love that you can say whatever you want," Rivers told The Boston Globe last November.
She was being celebrated Thursday by a new generation of fans, not just as a Brooklyn provocateur from the analog era, but as the loudest and funniest voice in the room — in any year.
First published September 4 2014, 7:29 PM