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Comedian Joan Rivers dead at 81
04:05 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Joan Rivers was brash, popular comedian and host

Rivers got her big break with appearance on "Tonight Show"

She later had her own talk shows, was a red-carpet maven

Despite criticism, tragedy, she constantly soldiered forward

CNN  — 

Joan Rivers started her career as a stand-up comedian quick to poke fun at herself – at her body, her family responsibilities and being a misfit within an unaccommodating world.

By the time she died Thursday at 81, Rivers had become a worldwide celebrity. But she was still a misfit, biting the well-groomed hands that fed her.

The comedian was quick-witted and sharp-tongued, known for standing on the red carpet or presiding over her show “Fashion Police” and, she said, saying the things that other people were thinking.

Rivers, the pioneering, sassy comedian whose gossipy “can we talk” persona led to a career as a headlining talk-show host, best-selling author and red-carpet maven, died a week after being rushed to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest at a Manhattan clinic.

“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,” said her daughter, Melissa, in a statement.

Joan Rivers dies at age 81

Rivers’ initial rise to fame was propelled by jokes about herself and her family duties.

“I hate housework,” went one of her jokes. “You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.”

“I blame my mother for my poor sex life,” went another. “All she told me was ‘the man goes on top and the woman underneath.’ For three years my husband and I slept in bunk beds.”

Rivers in her own words

Over time, her self-mocking shtick gave way to more pointed comedy, with shrewd and cutting insults aimed at celebrities and politicians. Comedians such as Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and Chelsea Handler owe a great deal to Rivers’ brash, commanding personality, which was unusual when she first came up.

“My heart is torn in half,” said Silverman in a tweet. “She wasn’t done.”

iReport: Share your memories of Joan Rivers

She was a popular talk-show guest, most notably on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and used that platform to become one of Carson’s regular guest hosts – and, in 1983, his permanent guest host.

But their relationship was severed when, in 1986, she became the host of her own talk show on Fox, then a new television network. Her show would air opposite the “Tonight Show.” Carson, feeling betrayed, cut her off cold. She didn’t appear on the “Tonight Show” again until Jimmy Fallon took over as host earlier this year.

Rivers’ Fox talk show was short-lived and its cancellation coincided with a dark period in her life, including the suicide of her husband-manager, Edgar Rosenberg, three months after the show was pulled.

Still, the comedian eventually bounced back, first with a daytime talk show, then as co-host with daughter Melissa of E!’s red-carpet coverage. The two Rivers became mainstays of awards season – later for the TV Guide Channel – with Joan known for mocking celebrities and their outfits there and on the show “Fashion Police.”

Rivers also became known for her extensive plastic surgery, which – in typical Rivers fashion – she flaunted rather than played down.

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware,” she said.

‘Screaming her way through life’