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Joan Rivers

Comedienne.

Born: June 8, 1933; Died: September 4, 2014.

JOAN Rivers, who has died aged 81, was an irreverent, wise-cracking comedian, writer and television presenter whose barbed, bitchy cracks made her a hit on talk shows - as a reliable guest performer and a somewhat less dependable presenter - on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Like so many outstanding comedians of the past half century, Joan Rivers was a Jewish New Yorker; what set her apart was, first, the fact that she was a woman, and then her blatant, almost pathological disregard for political correctness, authority, and what many thought were basic considerations of good taste.

She frequently fired abuse at celebrities - "Is Elizabeth Taylor fat? Her favourite food is seconds" - joked about her own extensive plastic surgery ("When I die, I'm donating my body to Tupperware") and about her supposed antipathy to sex and enthusiasm for money ("The only time a woman has a true orgasm is when she goes shopping"). But she was also prepared to base a one-liner on the Holocaust, disabilities, ethnic minorities and even her own husband's suicide.

Her readiness to shock, lack of respect for persons and propensity to embrace scatological, sexual or downright vulgar topics placed her in the tradition of other controversial American comics to emerge in the 1960s, such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin - though Joan Rivers, for the most part, lacked their political fury and directed her satirical bite at figures from popular culture.

Like them, too, she cut her teeth in the comedy clubs of Greenwich Village in Manhattan in the early Sixties; she was later to write a play about Bruce's mother, Sally Marr, herself a stand-up comic.

Joan Rivers was, however, one of the first female comedians to display the same transgressive instincts as those male performers, and her notoriety was established during the late 1960s not only by the novelty of a woman delivering such material, but by the fact that she did so on the most mainstream of outlets, The Tonight Show, the chat show hosted by Johnny Carson which was a pillar of prime-time television.

Joan Alexandra Molinsky was born on June 8, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York City, the second daughter of Meyer and Beatrice Molinsky, who were both immigrants from Russia. The family later moved to Westchester County, an affluent suburb, and Joan attended Connecticut College and then Barnard College, from which she graduated in 1954 with a BA in English Literature and Anthropology.

She took a number of jobs - as a tour guide, a copywriter and proof-reader in an advertising agency, and as a fashion buyer and consultant for a department store - before her first professional appearance on stage in the late 1950s in Driftwood, in which she played a lesbian. The object of her affections was played by Barbra Streisand, then unknown.

In the early Sixties she began to perform in comedy and folk clubs in Downtown Manhattan before her break, appearing on The Tonight Show, then presented by Jack Paar. By 1965 she was working on and off-screen for the hidden-camera show Candid Camera as a gag writer and as one of the performers who induced members of the public into preposterous situations. After her first appearance with The Tonight Show's new host, Johnny Carson, the same year, she was in regular demand on other chat shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, and as a writer for comedy and revue programmes. She made a brief appearance in The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster and based on a short story by John Cheever, released a couple of records of her stand-up and was given her own daytime talk show, though it ran for only a few months.

By the 1970s, she was a regular on variety shows such as Hollywood Squares as both a writer of additional material and a guest, and frequently appeared in Las Vegas as the opening act for a number of leading stars. She wrote a couple of film scripts, and also directed 1978's Rabbit Test, which starred Billy Crystal. By the mid-1980s she was Carson's regular stand-in host when he was absent, had picked up Grammy nominations for her comedy records and written best-selling books, including her first autobiography, Enter Talking.

She came to the attention of British audiences at about this time, as a guest on chat shows (Clive James was an early supporter) and as the fifth celebrity to feature on LWT's An Audience With… in 1984. She then had an offer from Fox in America, which was about to launch a new television channel, to host her own late-night chat show.

The Late Show starring Joan Rivers hit the screens in 1986, but only a few months later Fox decided to fire Edgar Rosenberg, Joan Rivers' husband, as producer. In May 1987 he committed suicide, and Rivers blamed the network for his death. But though she left the show, she was soon joking about his suicide - "It was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head" - and two years later landed another chat show, this time in the afternoons. It ran for five years and won her an Emmy.

In America, she then teamed up with her daughter Melissa to cover red-carpet events for the E! network, making catty comments about celebrities (she later performed much the same role for other channels and featured in a reality TV show about her moving into her daughter's house in California). In Britain, she popped up on Live at the Apollo and the panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats and brought a one-woman show, A Work in Progress by A Life in Progress, to the Fringe in 2008. In 2012, she returned to the UK in the Now or Never Tour. On both side of the Atlantic, she touted her own jewellery line on shopping channels, and launched an online chat show.

Joan Rivers was married for six months in 1955 to James Sanger; the marriage was annulled on the basis that he did not want children, but had not told her so before they married. A decade later, she married Edgar Rosenberg, to whom she remained married until his suicide, despite her having several affairs, including a one-night stand with Robert Mitchum. She is survived by Melissa, her daughter by Rosenberg, and a grandson.

She had serious complications during throat surgery on August 28 and was placed on life support. She was later said to have been moved out of intensive care and was being kept comfortable until she died at the Mount Sinai Hospital, surrounded by family and close friends.

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