Joan Rivers and Shelley Winters in The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson © Carson Productions
In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography?
The day before Joan Rivers stopped breathing during surgery on her vocal chords, she was doing what she’d done for most of her eighty-one years: working. "I could go at any moment -- I could fall over right here!" she told the crowd at the New York theater where she was performing standup comedy. It probably would have been the performer’s ideal death. Instead, she died a week later, after remaining unconscious, though in full hair and makeup, in a flower-bedecked hospital suite where the soundtrack to Oklahoma! played on repeat. The fact that her daughter, Melissa, made the decision to pull the plug is a detail Rivers would have loved turning into the sort of shockingly mordant punchline that only the comedian, who mined her tumultuous relationship with Melissa into fodder for material, could get away with.
Rivers took her work extremely seriously, but never herself. Those who worked with her described her as the consummate professional, a tireless workhorse who was always happy just to have a job. In the 2010 documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," Rivers is shown in her massive penthouse apartment, despairing over an empty appointment book. She’d far prefer to be on a late-night flight to a casino in the middle of the country to do her routine to a less-than-appreciative crowd than laze about on her divan. "It’s not about the money," she said in a recent interview. "I love the work."
Born in Brooklyn to Russian immigrants, Rivers attended Barnard and hoped to be a serious actress, but soon turned to comic performances and stand up. From the start, she mocked her own looks and her perceived unattractiveness to men. She instinctively knew that audiences would stay on her side as long as she made herself the butt of every joke, and, hard as she was on celebrities, she was always hardest on herself. Appearances on The Tonight Show launched her career, and she worked steadily in TV specials, talk shows, and awards shows until the end of her life.
Rivers was brash, brassy, and unapologetic, but often downplayed how influential she was to comedy. When the comic began doing standup, female comedians were a novelty and subjects such as abortion or extramarital sex were taboo, while male comedians were praised for working blue. Rivers pushed boundaries throughout her career, often serving as a weathervane for the prevailing sexism of the decades. She was the first (and remains the only) woman to host her own late-night show on a major network and the first female comic to perform at Carnegie Hall. Over the course of her career, she saw many male comics’ stars rise and fall, while she kept on doing her act, a combination of self-mockery, celebrity-baiting, and calculated button-pushing.
Rivers wrote her first memoir, Enter Talking, in 1986, and refined the practice in several more volumes combining anecdotes, one-liners, and advice. Her most recent effort, Diary of a Mad Diva, was released earlier this year. But now, with her death, it seems appropriate to tell the full story of the self-described "simple girl with a dream." Despite her utter candor and lack of pretense, there was a sense of discretion to Rivers -- underneath the loudmouth, a private, even shy woman. A sensitive biographer who could probe beneath the shock-tactics and the shtick might show us a side of Joan Rivers we’ve never seen -- and tell readers something about what we found funny, and why, during the run of her extraordinary career.