Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Joan Rivers had a long and varied career in the entertainment industry before passing away on September 4, 2014, at the age of 81.
Rivers’ began her career in New York City, performing stand-up in Greenwich Village. She was first introduced to a national audience when she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1965. Her appearances with Carson were groundbreaking for women in comedy, and particularly women on late-night television. Seeing a female face in that male-dominated field was unusual at the time, if not unheard of.
Rivers appeared on the show repeatedly, until breaking ties in 1986 when she agreed to host her own show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, on a rival network. Although that show lasted only one season, she went on to host The Joan Rivers Show, for which she was awarded a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1989 after the show’s first year. The Joan Rivers Show continued to air for another four seasons, ending in 1993.
At the time it was unusual to see female directors (something we still, sadly, struggle with), yet Rivers directed and co-wrote Rabbit Test in 1978—a quirky film that included Billy Crystal in the cast. It was his first movie.
Beginning in the mid-‘90s, Rivers began working as an entertainment commentator, hosting Live from the Red Carpet for E! in 1996. It was the beginning of a long-lasting relationship with the network. She is perhaps best known to the millennial generation as the host of Fashion Police. The show dissects celebrity fashion, more often than not relying on Rivers’ trademark humor.
While Rivers’ brand of humor was not for everyone, her story is an important part of the history of women in film and television. Many female comedians (Whitney Cummings, Sarah Silverman) consider Rivers an inspiration. However, Rivers herself never liked to be called a pioneer: “I don’t like when the ladies come up and say, ‘Oh, you broke barriers for women.’ ….You asked me am I proud to be a pioneer? I’m not a pioneer. I’m still in the trenches, I’m still breaking ground.“
For her snarky wit, often boundary-pushing humor, and refusal to let her gender define her, Rivers will be sorely missed.
— EMMA THOMAS, Development Assistant, New York Women in Film & Television