Joan Rivers Dead at 81, a Comedian and Cultural Icon

The indomitable stand-up passes away after throat surgery complications

Joan Rivers
Patrick Randak/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Joan Rivers
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Joan Rivers, the sharp-tongued comedian, actress and fashion commentator, died Thursday following surgery complications. She was 81.

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"It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers," said her daughter Melissa in a statement. "She passed peacefully at 1:17pm surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided for my mother.

"Cooper and I have found ourselves humbled by the outpouring of love, support, and prayers we have received from around the world. They have been heard and appreciated. My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."

Last week, Rivers stopped breathing while undergoing surgery on her throat. As TMZ reports, the comedian was in the middle of an operation on her vocal cords at a clinic when she was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Later that day, Rivers' daughter Melissa released a statement, saying that her mother was in stable but serious condition. "My mother would be so touched by the tributes and prayers that we have received from around the world," Melissa said at the time. On Saturday, USA Today reported that Rivers was in a medically induced coma. That same day, TMZ claimed she had been placed on life support and that her family would have to decide what to do within the days that followed.

Rivers began her career in New York City in the late Fifties, performing as an actress in plays and doing stand-up at comedy clubs. She established herself as a comedian who broke all cultural limits and taboos; an iconoclast unafraid of making jokes about serious matters. Over her six-decade career, she added Emmy-award-winning talk show host, bestselling author, playwright, director, jewelry designer and "red-carpet laureate," among other professions, to her résumé.

In her early days, Rivers scored appearances on Jack Paar's Tonight Show and a regular gig on Candid Camera, but her career took off after her first appearance alongside Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1965. Eventually, she became the permanent guest host on that show for three years.

While Rivers would become a mainstay on numerous talk and variety shows, including the Ed Sullivan ShowThe Carol Burnett Show and Hollywood Squares, her relationship with Carson, whom she called a mentor, was the most instrumental to her career. She remained a regular guest and fill-in host on The Tonight Show into the early Eighties; around the same time she released her hit comedy album, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?.

Rivers published her first book, Having a Baby Can Be a Scream, in 1974 and went on to write 11 more books over the next four decades. Her two most recent titles, 2012's I Hate Everyone...Starting With Me and this year's Diary of Mad Diva, were both New York Times bestsellers.

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In 1986, Rivers was given her own talk showThe Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, on the newly launched Fox network, which put her in direct competition with Carson. The Tonight Show host heard that Rivers had taken the job from someone other than the comedian herself and effectively ended their friendship; Rivers was also banned from The Tonight Show, returning only this year after new host Jimmy Fallon took over for Jay Leno. The Late Show would only last one year before Rivers was fired. 

In 1987, Rivers' husband of 22 years Edgar committed suicide after suffering from clinical depression. Rivers claimed that her husband, who also managed her, killed himself after experiencing guilt from Rivers' Late Show firing. Like anything else, Rivers confronted the tragedy through humor, joking, "My husband’s killed himself, and according to the will, I can’t get the money unless I visit him every day. So I had him cremated and got the ashes sprinkled in Neiman Marcus."

She would later helm The Joan Rivers Show, for which she won a Daytime Emmy in 1990 for Outstanding Talk Show. Rivers was a constant worker, appearing regularly on every medium imaginable, from radio to stage to screen — she was chief of the Fashion Police, the subject of a Comedy Central roast in 2009, and the operator of a consistently excellent Twitter account.

As an actress, Rivers lent her distinctively raspy voice to Spaceballs, Look Who's Talking, Shrek 2 and an episode of The Simpsons, among others. She also made appearances playing herself in Serial Mom and Iron Man 3.

For years, she and her daughter Melissa co-hosted various red carpet events before major awards shows. Beginning in 2011, Joan and Melissa co-starred on the reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, which focused on how the mother and daughter manage to live under the same roof. In recent years, she scored a notable guest appearance on Louis C.K.'s show Louie and was the subject of the 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

Throughout her life, Rivers supported a number of charities, including God's Love We Deliver, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and Guide Dogs for the Blind. She has also donated time to Wounded Warriors and the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

"As comedians, we are all laughing because life is so horrible," Rivers said in a 2010 interview, according to The Telegraph. "Life is so difficult and I cope with it by making jokes about absolutely everything."

True to this ethos, Rivers even joked about her own funeral in Diary of a Mad Diva. "Please make sure no one knows," Rivers wrote, "Melissa's last words to me were, 'Just sign this.'"