Imagine a time when comedy was not just dominated by men, but it was all men. Sure, you add a few women in the picture, but they were just part of an act that included a man — most likely her fictional or real life husband. Or you could have a woman in a scene, but she’d play the frumpy housewife. Her femininity would be downplayed and her role as a good wife or mother is would take center stage. This was the comedy world until, wait for it… a “Game Changer” came along. That “Game Changer” is Joan Rivers.
Born as Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, NY to Russian Jewish immigrants, Rivers started as an actress. She did stage work for a time under the name of Pepper January. She adopted the last name Rivers when she starred in an autobiographical one woman show: The Diary of Joan Rivers. Like any performer looking for gigs wherever they can find them, Rivers auditioned and was cast for the Second City in Chicago. She credited the improv company with aiding the discovery of her comedic voice.
After Second City, Rivers hustled, hitting clubs all over New York City. On one particularly rough night, at a club in the Greenwich Village, Lenny Bruce left her a note saying, “You’re right. They’re wrong.” This encouraged Rivers to keep working, in spite of all the adversity she faced. She was getting booked despite having what the New York Times at the time dubbed, “a handicap of woman comic.”
Joan Rivers extinguished a lot of the stigma of women in comedy. She pioneered and paved the way for hundreds of female comics that came in her wake. She wrote and played gags in the 1960s for Candid Camera. She was the first woman to host The Tonight Show in 1965, and the first woman to host her own late night show. She made herself known across the spectrum. She wrote 12 best selling books. She was nominated for a Grammy in 1984 and won one in 2015. She was nominated for a Tony in 1994. She starred in a made TV movie. She starred in reality TV. She created a jewelry line for QVC. She headlined E!’s Fashion Police. She was the center focus of the documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Me. Her prolific career is hard evidence of what can be achieved with persistence and hard work.
Her style has been described as self-deprecating, satirical, truthful, personal, abrasive, taboo, open, sassy, and dark. “Can we talk?” became her catch phrase, letting audience know they were in for a hilarious, gossipy reveal. Everyone was a target for Rivers: celebrities, her late husband, the Holocaust, news headlines, even herself. She left with no apologies, making her satirical nature even stronger. Joan Rivers changed the game, and for some women, she invented it.
It’s because of this and more it was a no brainer to feature Rivers as one of our women legends of comedy.