Near the beginning of the 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" – by turns hilarious, heartbreaking and inspiring – the comedy legend shows off a wall’s worth of card catalog drawers filled with a half-century of jokes like, "My best birth control now is just to leave the lights on."
Then she delivers a line that probably didn’t make it onto one of her cards: "There's always an adjective before my name, and it's never a nice adjective."
Her words proved vintage Rivers: funny, yet with the ring of bitter truth. Self-deprecating, yet saying more about the foibles of others than herself. Insecure, yet confident in her place as an unbreakable show business survivor. After all, even if people were saying nasty things about Joan Rivers, she took pride in always giving people something to talk about.
Rivers’ own voice, a brassy instrument that delivered unvarnished comedy, was silenced during a routine surgery that ultimately took her life Thursday at age 81 – ending the groundbreaking career of an indomitable entertainment force who always made us listen when she asked, “Can we talk?”
Her signature phrase wasn’t a question so much as a personal invitation, brimming with the promise of irreverence, honesty and biting humor – along with a rare sense of intimacy via a performer who churned public pain and personal demons into comic fodder.
It’s a phrase that carried Rivers to the height of success in the 1980s as Johnny Carson’s anointed permanent “Tonight Show” guest host. It's also a phrase that later carried her from the depths of career and personal ruin – the suicide of her husband Edgar Rosenberg, and her epic falling-out with Carson over her departure for a competing show on Fox – to her 21st century comeback as the caustic commissioner of the “Fashion Police” and a winner on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Rivers constantly reinvented her career without ever reinventing the essence of herself. Sure, there were nips and tucks along the way, mirroring her frequent plastic surgery. But even if the venues changed and she added her daughter Melissa to the mix, we could rest assured that we’d be getting the same Joan whose talent first grabbed a mass audience by throat on “The Tonight Show” in 1965 and never let go.
Rivers, who fought her way onto the stand-up circuit when comedy was largely a men's club, proved herself a fearless performer. She didn't care if she offended anybody, on the red carpet or anywhere else ("Oh, grow up!" was her rejoinder to groans). No topic was off-limits for jokes – not her husband’s death, not even the Holocaust. Still, Rivers, especially in her early career, made herself her most frequent punchline, with classic cracks like: "I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw my bath toys were a toaster and a radio."
Rivers was working the night before the routine surgery she never woke up from and had been slated to work the night after, in keeping with her vow to never retire. Now, in retrospect, it seems she was in the midst of victory lap, having appeared on “The Tonight Show” at Jimmy Fallon’s invitation after a three-decade absence. Her final run also included storming out of a July interview with CNN, furious at the suggestion her humor was mean.
"Life is very tough, and if you can make something easier and funny, do it,” Rivers said. “I don't know what your life has been like but I know a lot of people who have gone through hell... Winston Churchill said if you make someone laugh, you give them a vacation. And maybe you take the worst thing in the world, make it funny and give them a vacation from horror."
It’s hard to imagine Joan Rivers taking a vacation – forget about leaving fans forever without her unflinching wit. She always told what she saw as the truth, even if she wasn’t always right: News of her death spurred fond remembrances from all over, with overwhelmingly positive adjectives placed in front of the name of the incomparable Joan Rivers.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.