In Memoriam: Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

A tribute to the trailblazer who influenced generations of comedians

The entertainment world lost a comic legend—and the LGBT community lost a friend and strong supporter—when Joan Rivers passed away on September 4. She was 81.

Born in 1933 as Joan Alexandra Molinsky, she was known most of her life by her stage name. She had a lengthy career as an actor, stand-up comic, writer, producer and TV host. In recent years, she co-hosted the celebrity fashion show Fashion Police on E! and starred in the WE reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? along with her daughter Melissa Rivers.

As a woman in the male-dominated field of stand-up comedy, she rose to fame in the 1960s with her frenetic, no-holds-barred, gossipy humor. Over the next two decades, she established a successful career, both as a performer and writer, with Johnny Carson as her mentor. But when Fox gave Rivers her own late-night talk show, Carson turned his back. She lost both her mentor and a dear friend.

In the 1980s, Rivers’ personal life was in turmoil. Her beloved husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide. She also struggled with bulimia, as she confided in her 1997 book, Bouncing Back: I’ve Survived Everything…and I Mean Everything…and You Can Too!
She certainly had bounced back in recent years, enjoying her late-career renaissance, staying active in causes, as well as making tons of appearances on TV and in public.

On August 28, during an outpatient surgical procedure on her vocal cords, Rivers stopped breathing. There have been allegations that a risky biopsy went wrong. Surgeries that compromise a patient’s airway are typically performed in a hospital setting. Whatever happened, she was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital and put into a medically induced coma after suffering cardiac arrest. On August 30, she went on life support. She died a few days later, after being moved from the ICU into a private room.

Rivers’ star-studded funeral took place September 7 at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El. Among the celebrities in attendance were Donald Trump, Diane Sawyer, Whoopi Goldberg, Sarah-Jessica Parker, Louis C.K. and Margaret Cho. Fittingly, the atmosphere was a mix of laughter and sorrow. Lesbian comic Judy Gold described the mood of Rivers’ sendoff to NY1: “[Her memorial service] ran the gamut of emotion…hilarious and so, so painfully sad.” Howard Stern told CNN that he cried like a baby.
While touching tributes poured out for Rivers, it didn’t look like the Great White Way would do the same. But on September 9, the decision not to dim the lights on Broadway was reversed. The lights went dark in her memory for one minute. “Joan Rivers loved Broadway and we loved her,” stated Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League.

Rivers will be deeply missed in the LGBT community as an important ally. She also influenced the lives and careers of many LGBT entertainers. Lesbian comics such as Michele Balan, Poppy Champlin and Poppi Kramer fondly recall how the Queen of the Barbed One-Liners helped shape their careers.

“I remember when I first started doing comedy, one of Joan Rivers’ producers asked if I would write for Joan, as she thought I had a similar sensibility,” Michele Balan recalls. “Of course, I said no, because I was writing for me! But I felt honored that I was asked. Joan was an amazing woman and talent. I know how hard this business is for women, and I think as talented and known as she was, it was still hard for her. She paved a way for many female comics.”

“Joan Rivers was my mentor as a comedian, as a strong woman who didn’t take crap and kept moving forward,” says Poppy Champlin, who earned the title of America’s Funniest Woman on The Joan Rivers Show in 1993. [She was a] ‘get the men out of the way, we got some serious comedy work to do here’ type of gal. I put on a wig and wrapped a boa around my neck and performed her comedy—not knowing that that’s not a kosher thing to do. I did it anyway. As she would. And I learned how to deliver a joke, wait for a laugh, get a laugh, and hit ‘em again with another joke. She was great, a trailblazer, and I loved her. I am most thankful for her strident attitude and persistence.”

Poppi Kramer recalls: “When my mother was pregnant with me, she went to see Joan Rivers in Atlantic City. After the show she waited to get [Joan’s] book signed. Joan rubbed my mom’s belly and asked, ‘How far along?’ Outside the womb, my first encounter with Joan was when she was recording a voiceover for my dad’s client. We missed each other that day—but she, not even knowing me, left a note. Knowing I was a new comic starting out, she wrote: ‘Poppi, I’m sorry I missed you. Take every spot you can. Record everything. Write everything down. Good luck, and see you at The Duplex. Love, Joan.’”

It’s heartbreaking to lose someone who brought us so much laughter. We will greatly mourn the loss of Joan Rivers—from her wit and self-deprecating humor, to her kindness and compassion for others. And we’ll miss her uniquely generous support of young, up and coming female comics. We’ll miss the love she gave to our community. We only hope she knew how much we loved her.

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