Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. She was the younger daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants Beatrice (née Grushman; January 6, 1906 – October 1975) and Meyer C. Molinsky (December 7, 1900 – January 1985). Her elder sister, Mrs. Barbara Waxler, died on June 3, 2013, aged 82. Rivers was raised in Brooklyn, where she attended the Adelphi Academy, and her family later moved to Larchmont, New York. She attended Connecticut College between 1950 and 1952, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature and anthropology. Before entering show business, Rivers worked at various jobs such as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, a writer/proofreader at an advertising agency and a fashion consultant at Bond Clothing Stores. During this period, agent Tony Rivers advised her to change her name, so she chose Joan Rivers as her stage name.
During the late 1950s, Rivers appeared in a short-run play, Driftwood, playing a lesbian with a crush on a character played by a then-unknown Barbra Streisand. The play ran for six weeks. Rivers performed in numerous comedy clubs in the Greenwich Village area of New York City in the early 1960s, including The Bitter End and The Gaslight Cafe, before making her first appearances as a guest on the TV program The Tonight Show originating from New York, hosted at the time by Jack Paar.
By 1965, Rivers had a stint on Candid Camera as a gag writer and participant; she was “the bait” to lure people into ridiculous situations for the show. She also made her first appearance on The Tonight Show with new host Johnny Carson, on February 17, 1965. During the same decade, Rivers made other appearances on The Tonight Show as well as The Ed Sullivan Show, while hosting the first of several talk shows. She wrote material for the puppet Topo Gigio. She had a brief role in The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster. A year later, she had a short-lived syndicated daytime talk show, That Show with Joan Rivers; Johnny Carson was her first guest. In the middle of the 1960s, she released at least two comedy albums, The Next to Last Joan Rivers Album and Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories.
By the 1970s, Rivers was appearing on various television comedy and variety shows, including The Carol Burnett Show and a semi-regular stint on Hollywood Squares. From 1972 to 1976, she narrated The Adventures of Letterman, an animated segment for The Electric Company. In 1973, Rivers wrote the TV movie The Girl Most Likely to…, a black comedy starring Stockard Channing. In 1978, Rivers wrote and directed the film Rabbit Test, starring her friend Billy Crystal. During the same decade, she was the opening act for singers Helen Reddy, Robert Goulet, Mac Davis and Sergio Franchi on the Las Vegas Strip.
Rivers spoke of her primary Tonight Show life as having been “Johnny Carson’s daughter,” a reference to his longtime mentoring of her and, during the 1980s, establishing her as his regular guest host by August 1983. She also hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, on April 9, 1983. In the same period, she released a best-selling comedy album on Geffen Records, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? The album reached No. 22 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album. During the 1980s, she continued doing stand-up shows along with appearing on various television shows. In February 1983, she became the first female comedian to ever perform at Carnegie Hall. Later that year, she did stand-up on the United Kingdom’s TV show An Audience With Joan Rivers.
In 1984, Rivers published a best-selling humor book, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz, a mock memoir of her brassy, loose comedy character. A television special based on the character, a mock tribute called Joan Rivers and Friends Salute Heidi Abramowitz, was not successful with the public. The decade was controversial for Rivers. She sued female impersonator Frank Marino for $5,000,000 in 1986, after discovering he was using her real stand-up material in the impersonation of her that he included in his popular Las Vegas act. The two comics reconciled and even appeared together on television in later years.
Also in 1986 came the move that cost Rivers her longtime friendship with Carson, who had first hired her as a Tonight Show writer. The soon-to-launch Fox Television Network announced that it was giving her a late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, making Rivers the first woman to have her own talk show on a major network.
The new network planned to broadcast the show 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. Eastern Time, making her a Carson competitor. Carson learned of the show from Fox and not from Rivers. In the documentary, Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, Rivers said she only called Carson to discuss the matter after learning he may have already heard about it and that he immediately hung up on her. In the same interview, she said that she later came to believe that maybe she should have asked for his blessing before taking the job. Rivers was banned from appearing on the Tonight Show, a decision respected by Carson’s first two successors Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. After the release of his 2013 biography on Johnny Carson, Carson’s manager Harry Bushkin revealed that he never received a call from Rivers’ husband Edgar concerning the move to Fox, contrary to what Edgar had told Rivers. Rivers did not appear on the Tonight Show again until February 17, 2014, when she made a brief appearance on new host Jimmy Fallon’s first episode. On March 27, 2014, Rivers returned for an interview.
Shortly after Carson’s death in 2005, Rivers said that he had never spoken to her again. In 2008, during an interview with Dr. Pamela Connolly on television’s Shrink Rap, Rivers claimed she did call Carson, but he hung up on her at once and repeated the gesture when she called again.
The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers turned out to be flecked by tragedy. When Rivers challenged Fox executives, who wanted to fire her husband Edgar Rosenberg as the show’s producer, the network fired them both. On May 15, 1987, three months later, Rosenberg committed suicide in Philadelphia; Rivers blamed the tragedy on his “humiliation” by Fox. Fox attempted to continue the show with a new name (The Late Show) and rotating guest hosts. A year after the Late Show debacle, Rivers was a guest on TV’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special. By 1989, she tried another daytime TV talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, which ran for five years and won her a Daytime Emmy in 1990 for Outstanding Talk Show Host. In 1994, Rivers and daughter Melissa first hosted the E! Entertainment Television pre-awards show for the Golden Globe Awards. Beginning in 1995, they hosted the annual E! Entertainment Television pre-awards show for the Academy Awards. Beginning in 1997, Rivers hosted her own radio show on WOR in New York City. Rivers also appeared as one of the center square occupants on the 1986–89 version of The Hollywood Squares, hosted by John Davidson. In 1994, influenced by the “dirty comedy” of Lenny Bruce, Rivers co-wrote and starred in a play about Bruce’s mother Sally Marr, who was also a stand-up comic and influenced her son’s development as a comic. After 27 previews, “Sally Marr … and Her Escorts,” a play “suggested by the life of Sally Marr” ran on Broadway for 50 performances in May and June 1994. Rivers was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Actress in a Play and a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for playing Sally Marr.
By 2003, Rivers had left her E! red-carpet show for a three-year contract (valued at $6–8 million) to cover award shows’ red carpet events for the TV Guide Channel. Rivers appeared in three episodes of the TV show Nip/Tuck during its second, third and seventh season, playing herself. Rivers appeared regularly on television’s The Shopping Channel (in Canada) and QVC (in both the United States and the UK), promoting her own line of jewelry under brand name “The Joan Rivers Collection”. She was also a guest speaker at the opening of the American Operating Room Nurses’ 2000 San Francisco Conference. Both Joan and Melissa Rivers were frequent guests on Howard Stern’s radio show, and Joan Rivers often appeared as a guest on UK panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats.
On August 16, 2007, Rivers began a two-week workshop of her new play, with the working title “The Joan Rivers Theatre Project”, at The Magic Theatre in San Francisco. On December 3, 2007, Rivers performed in the Royal Variety Show 2007 at the Liverpool Empire Theatre, England, with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip present. In January 2008, Rivers became one of 20 hijackers to take control of the Big Brother house in the UK for one day in spin-off TV show Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack. On June 24, 2008, Rivers appeared on NBC-TV’s show Celebrity Family Feud and competed with her daughter against Ice-T and Coco.
Rivers and daughter Melissa were contestants in 2009 on the second Celebrity Apprentice. Throughout the season, each celebrity raised money for a charity of his or her choice; Rivers selected God’s Love We Deliver. After a falling out with poker player Annie Duke, following Melissa’s on-air firing (elimination) by Donald Trump, Rivers left the green room telling Clint Black and Jesse James that she would not be in the next morning. Rivers later returned to the show and on May 3, 2009, she became a finalist in the series. The other finalist was Duke. On the season finale, which aired live on May 10, Rivers was announced the winner and hired to be the 2009 Celebrity Apprentice.
Joan and her daughter premiered the new show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? on WE tv. The series follows Joan moving to California to be closer to her family. She moves in with daughter Melissa while searching for a home of her own. WE tv then ordered a new season consisting of 10 episodes, which premiered in January 2012. In 2011, Rivers was featured as herself in Season 2 of Louis C.K.’s self-titled show Louie, where she performed on-stage. Beginning September 10, 2010, Rivers co-hosted the E! show Fashion Police, along with Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, and George Kotsiopoulos commenting on the dos and don’ts of celebrity fashion. The show started as a half-hour program but expanded to one hour on March 9, 2012. On August 7, 2012, Rivers showed up in Burbank, California to protest that the warehouse club Costco would not sell her New York Times best-selling book, I Hate Everyone … Starting with Me. She handcuffed herself to a person’s shopping cart and shouted through a megaphone. The police were called to the scene and she left without incident; no arrests were made. On March 5, 2013, she launched a new online talk show on YouTube, called In Bed with Joan, in which each week she had a different celebrity guest who “came out of the closet”, and they talked about various topics. The show took place in Rivers’ bedroom, in Melissa’s home in Malibu, California.
On August 26, 2014, Rivers hosted a taping of Fashion Police with Kelly Osbourne, Giuliana Rancic, and George Kotsiopoulos about the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2014 MTV Movie Awards which would be her last television appearance before her death. The day before her throat surgery, Joan released her most recent podcast of In Bed with Joan, with LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian.
Rivers was featured on the show Z Rock as herself; she was also a special “pink-carpet” presenter for the 2009 broadcast of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. She was also roasted in a Comedy Central special, taped on July 26, 2009, and aired on August 9, 2009. From August 2009, Rivers began starring in the new reality TV series How’d You Get So Rich? on TV Land. A documentary film about Rivers, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre on May 6, 2010. In 2011, Rivers appeared in a commercial for Go Daddy, which debuted during the broadcast of Super Bowl XLV. She made two appearances on Live at the Apollo, once as a comedian and once as a guest host.
During her 55-year career as a comedian, her tough-talking style of satirical humor was both praised and criticized as being truthful, yet too personal, too gossipy, and very often abrasive. Nonetheless, with her ability to “tell it like it is,” she became a pioneer of contemporary stand-up comedy. Commenting about her style, she told biographer Gerald Nachman, “Maybe I started it. We’re a very gossipy culture. All we want to know now is private lives.”
However, her style of humor, which often relied on making jokes about her own life and satirizing the lives of celebrities and public figures, was sometimes criticized as insensitive. Her jokes about Elizabeth Taylor and Adele’s weight, for instance, were often commented on, although Rivers would never apologize for her humor. Rivers, who was Jewish, was also criticized for making jokes about the Holocaust and later explained, “This is the way I remind people about the Holocaust. I do it through humor”, adding, “my husband lost his entire family in the Holocaust.” Her joke about the victims of the Ariel Castro kidnappings, similarly came under criticism, but she again refused to apologize, stating, “I know what those girls went through. It was a little stupid joke.”
Rivers accepted such criticism as part of her using social satire as a form of humor: “I’ve learned to have absolutely no regrets about any jokes I’ve ever done … You can tune me out, you can click me off, it’s OK. I am not going to bow to political correctness. But you do have to learn, if you want to be a satirist, you can’t be part of the party.” Rivers states that seeing Lenny Bruce perform at a local club while she was in college influenced her developing style:
He was an epiphany. Lenny told the truth. It was a total affirmation for me that I was on the right track long before anyone said it to me. He supplied the revelation that personal truth can be the foundation of comedy, that outrageousness can be cleansing and healthy. It went off inside me like an enormous flash. At the suggestion of comedian Bill Cosby, Johnny Carson gave Rivers, who he billed as a comedy writer, her debut appearance on his show in 1965. Cosby, who knew Rivers from their early stand-up days, described her as “an intelligent girl without being a weirdo . . . a human being, not a kook.” Sitting alongside Johnny after her monologue, she displayed an intimate, conversational style which he appreciated, and she was invited back eight more times that year.
Time magazine compared her humor to that of Woody Allen, by expressing “how to be neurotic about practically everything,” but noting that “her style and femininity make her something special.” Rivers also compared herself to Allen, stating: “He was a writer, which I basically was . . . and talking about things that affected our generation that nobody else talked about.” New York Times critic Charles L. Mee likewise compared her to Allen, explaining that her “style was personal, an autobiographical stream-of-consciousness.” Rivers’ image contrasted starkly with Johnny Carson’s stage demeanor, which was one of the reasons he made her co-host. Critic Michael Pollan compared their style of humor: Where Carson is scrupulously polite, Rivers is bitchy; where he is low-key, she is overheated; where he is Midwest, Waspy and proper, she is urban, ethnic and gossipy. Carson conducts interviews as if he were at the country club; Rivers does hers at the kitchen table.
In her personal life, however, fewer of those neurotic or intense character traits which viewers see on screen, are displayed. Ralph Schoenstein, who dated her and worked with her on her humor books, states, “She has no airs. She doesn’t stand on ceremony. The woman has absolutely no pretense. She’ll tell you everything immediately. Joan isn’t cool—she’s completely open. It’s all grist. It’s her old thing–‘Can we talk?’” According to biographer Victoria Price, Rivers’ humor was notable for taking aim at and overturning what had been considered acceptable female behavior. By her bravura, she broke through long-standing taboos in humor, which paved the way for other women, including Roseanne Barr, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O’Donnell.
Rivers was a member of the Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El in New York and stated publicly that she “love[d] Israel”. She was also critical of celebrities who supported Hamas in the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict. Rivers’ first marriage was in 1955 to James Sanger, the son of a Bond Clothing Stores merchandise manager. The marriage lasted six months and was annulled on the basis that Sanger did not want children and had not informed Rivers before the wedding. Her second marriage was on July 15, 1965, to Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987. Their only child, Melissa Warburg Rosenberg (now known as Melissa Rivers), was born on January 20, 1968. Joan had one grandson, Melissa’s son Cooper (born Edgar Cooper Endicott in 2000), who was featured with his mother and grandmother in the WE tv series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?
In her book Bouncing Back (1997) Rivers described how she developed bulimia nervosa and contemplated suicide. Eventually, she recovered with counseling and the support of her family. In 2002, Rivers told the Montreal Mirror that she was a Republican. However, on a 2013 episode of Celebrity Wife Swap, Rivers stated that she was a Democrat. Then, on January 28, 2014, during a conversation with Reza Farahan, she announced that she was in fact a Republican.
Rivers was also a philanthropist and HIV/AIDS activist. She donated to Jewish charities, animal welfare efforts, and suicide prevention causes. She was a supporter of God’s Love We Deliver, a non-profit organization which delivers meals to HIV/AIDS patients in New York City. She also supported the AIDS Health Foundation. In 2008, she was commended by the City of San Diego, California for her philanthropic work regarding HIV/AIDS. Additionally, she served as an Honorary Director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She also supported Guide Dogs for the Blind, a non-profit organization which provides guide dogs to blind people.
In a June 5, 2012, interview with Howard Stern, Rivers said she had several extramarital affairs when married to Rosenberg. According to Rivers, she had a one-night sexual encounter with actor Robert Mitchum in the 1960s after an appearance together on The Tonight Show. She also had an extended affair with actor Gabriel Dell during the out-of-town and Broadway productions of her 1971 play Fun City, for which Rivers told Stern she “left Edgar over” for several weeks. Rivers was open about her multiple cosmetic surgeries and was a patient of plastic surgeon Steven Hoefflin, beginning in 1983. Her first procedure, an eye lift, was performed in 1965 as an attempt to further her career.
On August 28, 2014, Rivers experienced serious complications and stopped breathing during a procedure on her vocal cords, at a clinic in Yorkville, Manhattan. She was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital and was put into a medically induced coma after reportedly suffering cardiac arrest. On August 29, her daughter, Melissa, publicly stated that Joan was “resting comfortably” in the hospital. On August 30, it was reported that Rivers had been put on life support. Reports initially stated that Rivers’ family might face ending her life support if her condition did not improve. However, on September 1, 2014, an unnamed source told Entertainment Tonight that Rivers’ physicians at Mount Sinai Hospital had started the process of trying to bring her out of the coma the previous day. Prior to that, there had been no further medical updates beyond her daughter’s statement.
On September 3, Melissa issued a brief statement that Rivers had been moved from Mount Sinai Hospital’s intensive care unit into a private room, without any comment concerning Rivers’s condition or prognosis. The following day, she announced via another statement that Rivers had died at 13:17 EDT. On September 5, New York City medical examiner’s office spokeswoman Julie Bolcer advised media that an autopsy had been completed, but that it had failed to conclusively identify the cause of Rivers’ death. More testing had been ordered.
- June, 08, 1933
- Brooklyn, New York
- September, 04, 2014
- Manhattan, New York
Cause of Death
- Brain damage from lack of oxygen
- cremated and some of Joan's ashes were spreaded by her daughter in Wyoming