Joan Rivers is best known for her acerbic sense of humor, her no holds barred critique on the styles and lives of celebrities, and her complete refusal to hold anything (including herself) too sacred. Rivers was a trailblazer who lived a long and varied life. From stand-up comedy to hosting a late-night show to designing and selling jewelry on QVC to writing books—she did it all and then some. Many were quick to write her off on several occasions, but a fighter through and through, she proved them all wrong. On the go until her death at the age of 81 in 2014, she was relentless in her mission to stay relevant. Let’s raise a glass to these 44 raunchy facts about the self-proclaimed “mad diva,” Joan Rivers.
1. It Runs in the Family
Joan Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, daughter to Russian Jewish immigrants in New York in 1933. Her father, Meyer Molinsky, was a doctor and by all accounts had a great sense of humor. Rivers was obviously a chip off the old block.
2. What’s in a Name?
She used the stage name of Pepper January for a while, but on the suggestion of her agent, Tony Rivers, changed it to Joan Rivers.
3. The Mom Factor
Rivers’ mom, Beatrice Molinsky, was from a wealthy background, but had left her riches behind when she came to the US. She was always urging her husband to make more money. As River put it, her mother wanted her father’s M.D. title to mean “Make Dollars.” The quarrels that Rivers witnessed growing up became material for her early comedic routines. They were also the reason behind Rivers’ own insecurity about her financial situation later. She was always afraid everything she had achieved might disappear.
4. Life Before Laughs
Joan Rivers graduated from Barnard College with a degree in Literature and Anthropology. She had been involved in the drama and writing departments in school and college. Later, she worked various jobs such as a writer/proofreader for an advertising agency, a tour guide at the Rockefeller Center, and a fashion consultant at Bond Clothing Store.
5. A Royal Invite
Joan Rivers was one of only four Americans invited to the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. She had gotten to know them while vacationing in the South of France and said they both had “a great sense of humor.” They did seem to enjoy her jokes, even when they were aimed at the royal family, and released a statement after her death to express that she would be “hugely missed” and was “utterly irreplaceable.”
6. Stage Debut
Joan Rivers always wanted to act, but this was in direct defiance of her parents’ wishes—especially her mother’s. Beatrice wanted Joan to marry up and become a part of the upper class. Undeterred, Rivers got her first break on an Off-Broadway show called Driftwood. She always claimed she played a lesbian with a crush on (a not-yet-famous) Barbra Streisand, yet many years later, the playwright himself came out and claimed, “There was no lesbianism in my play."
Hey, who says Rivers wasn't just doing the extra work to discover who her character really was?
7. Stand Up and Joke
Rivers started performing as a stand-up comedienne in various night clubs, like The Gaslight (any Mrs. Maisel fans out there?!), in the 1960s. She was also part of a cabaret act with Jim Connell and Jake Holmes, titled Jim, Jake and Joan, during that period. This act led to her big-screen debut with them on Once Upon a Coffeehouse. They appeared as themselves in the movie.
Woody Allen and George Carlin were also performing in Greenwich Village at the time and became good friends with Rivers. She also worked with Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel. “I was bringing home Woody Allen before he was Woody Allen, Richard Pryor before he was Richard Pryor, and Lily Tomlin before she was Lily Tomlin.”
9. Tonight with Carson
After years of struggling to get recognized, fame came suddenly to Rivers when she appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on NBC. She had auditioned for it several times before she finally managed to get a six-minute slot for her stand-up routine. Carson enjoyed her jokes so much that he had tears in his eyes from laughing and told her she “would be a star.”
Then she received one of the highest honors in comedy: Carson invited her over to the couch after her set. Other comedians who got the same nod? Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Ellen Degeneres.
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10. The Carson Effect
Joan Rivers became a star overnight after her appearance on The Tonight Show, and then there was no stopping her! Apart from her regular stand-up, she began appearing on various shows, like The Ed Sullivan Show and Girl Talk with Virginia Graham. She wrote for television and movies as well as The Chicago Tribune. She made her debut on Broadway, released comedy albums, and became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show.
The Carson-Rivers chemistry was so popular that he made her the first permanent guest host of the show in 1983. This meant that she would host in his place at times when he was off on vacation or working a shorter week. She managed to draw in good ratings, and a few times did even better than Carson himself.
11. From Friends to Rivals
Alas, the Carson-Rivers pairing was not meant to be. Reportedly, there was a rift between NBC and Rivers because she was not being considered as a replacement for Carson when he retired. Around the same time, Fox Television Network offered Rivers a chance to host her own show called The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, which would run at the same time as Carson’s Tonight Show. This would, naturally, make them competitors.
When Carson discovered this situation, from someone other than Rivers, he completely shut her out of his life, never speaking to her again. Carson's ire was so great that his next two successors, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, both declined to invite Rivers as a guest, in honor of his wishes. However, in 2014, Jimmy Fallon finally broke the taboo by bringing her back on the show where she'd gotten her start decades before.
12. Happily Married?
Rivers married Edgar Rosenburg, a British TV producer, in 1964. Rosenburg was a supportive husband and helped Rivers polish her comedic routines. He was often the subject of her one-liners too, as she joked about pre-marital sex or their life together. Rivers was happy in the early days of her marriage, but was concerned because it was harder doing comedy when everything seemed to be going well in life.
13. Sleeping With the Frenemy
In the last year of her life, Rivers made one more shocking revelation. She claimed that she had slept with Johnny Carson and that was how she had landed her slot at The Tonight Show. This claim was met with widespread skepticism, and apparently even most of her friends didn't believe it, but the tabloids had a field day running headlines about it.
14. Behind the Camera
Rivers co-wrote The Girl Most Likely To in 1973 as a made-for-television film. She then went on to co-write and direct Billy Crystal in Rabbit Test in 1978, in which he played the world’s first pregnant man. The film received terrible reviews. Most critics were unanimous in their views that the film was not funny, despite trying very hard to be.
However, it still managed to do well at the box office because of heavy promotions and publicity.
15. Oh Baby
Joan Rivers and husband Edgar Rosenburg had one daughter in 1968. Rivers joked about her pregnancy in veiled terms during her routines because it wasn’t considered appropriate to talk about it openly at the time. She wrote her first book about the experience of motherhood, titled Having a Baby Can Be a Scream. Melissa Rosenburg took on her mother’s stage name, Rivers, in 1990.
The mother-daughter duo long worked together hosting shows on the red carpet, on television, and were co-creators and co-producers for the web series In Bed with Joan.
16. Let Them Eat Pie
Joan Rivers was a serious collector of Fabergé, china, and silverware. She mixed antique pieces with modern ones and was extremely fond of throwing lavish parties. She would invite her closest friends every year for a grand Thanksgiving dinner. About her house, she would say: “This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she were alive.” She never repeated the same china for her guests.
17. A Royal Collection
In 2016, Christie's sold over 200 pieces from Rivers' collection. The deputy chairman spoke appreciatively about her unerring eye for picking out the best of French and English antiques, furniture, art, and other items. Her daughter jokingly referred to it as “rich people hoarding,” but also admitted that it was hard to part with things that held so many “cherished memories.”
18. Suicide Spiked
After Rosenburg's death, Rivers went through a dark period when she developed bulimia, her daughter was upset with her, she had been fired from her late-night show, Carson had shut her out, and she had discovered how much debt her late husband had left behind. She was so depressed, she considered taking her own life—and got chillingly close to doing so.
However, as she sat on her bed, contemplating suicide, her Yorkshire terrier Spike jumped on her lap and sat down on her gun. Those few moments were enough for her to change her mind and bring her back to the world.
19. Fashionably Repetitive
Rivers was fond of dressing up and had bold opinions on what others were wearing, but she also strongly believed there was no harm in wearing the same clothes twice. She also liked going to thrift stores. She had no use for magazines that suggested women should wear clothes according to their age: “for me, that would be a shroud.”
20. QVC Queen
Time and again Rivers proved she was a fighter. After Rosenburg’s suicide, she had to reinvent herself. She moved back to New York and began to design jewelry, clothes, and accessories for the shopping channel QVC. “In those days, only dead celebrities went on (QVC).” She thought her career was over and this could be a decent source of income. She had been $37 million in debt when she joined QVC, and over a 24-year-long career, she ended up making around $250 million.
Talk about coming back from the dead!
21. Say Yes to Plastic
Joan Rivers was very much in favor of plastic surgery. “Anyone who thinks plastic surgery is fluffy is a fool.” She had several procedures done herself and was very open about it.
22. Killing Me Softly
In the end, it was a minor elective throat surgery that became the cause of Rivers's death. She stopped breathing while the procedure was taking place and passed away at the age of 81 after spending a week in a medically induced coma. It was later discovered that she had suffered brain damage because her brain had not been getting an adequate supply of oxygen.
23. Doctor Who?
Melissa Rivers sued the clinic where the surgery took place for medical malpractice. It had been verified by medical officers and federal officials that the doctors had made several mistakes and ill-judged decisions while performing the surgery. Apparently, one of the doctors in the OR wasn’t supposed to be there, but he was, and he even took a selfie with the sedated Rivers.
Another doctor also took pictures of her, supposedly thinking she would like to see them after the procedure. Melissa’s lawyer called the conduct “outrageous.” The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount, and the doctors accepted responsibility for her death.
24. Not Without My Makeup
Melissa hired a “glam squad” to do her mother’s makeup and styling while she was in a coma during her last days. She knew her mother was very particular about her appearance and would want to look her best, even while she was unconscious.
25. You’re Hired
Rivers appeared on many reality shows throughout her career. She was center square for Hollywood Squares for many years and also appeared on Celebrity Apprentice with her daughter Melissa. In fact, the mother-daughter duo ended up winning the show! After her passing, Donald Trump tweeted that she was “an amazing woman and great friend.”
26. Honor Roll
Rivers started a daytime talk show in 1989, called The Joan Rivers Show. This ran for five seasons and even won a Rivers Daytime Emmy for being an “outstanding host.”
27. Giving Back
When she won Celebrity Apprentice, Rivers raised $150 million for the charity God’s Love We Deliver, which provides food to people who are sick. Throughout her life, she donated to her favorite charities and worked with them constantly. Apart from God’s Love We Deliver, these included Guide Dogs for the Blind and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
She also worked a lot with causes that supported HIV/AIDS activism. and was a spokesperson for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
28. A Walk to Remember
Rivers was not fond of exercising at all: “If God had wanted me to bend over, He would have put diamonds on the floor.” The only form of physical exercise she enjoyed and indulged in was going for long walks.
29. Foodie, Not Cook
Rivers was upfront about not being able to cook. She enjoyed eating, however, and loved Italian food: “My last meal would be everything Italian—lasagne, noodles, cheeses, cannolis.”
30. Story of My Life
In the early 90s, Joan and Melissa co-wrote an autobiographical movie for television titled Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story. This was broadcast on NBC with the writers playing themselves. It was mainly about their relationship, how they dealt with the aftermath of Rosenburg’s suicide, how it impacted Rivers' career. Then, many years later in 2010, Rivers was the feature of another documentary: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. This film intended to “[peel] away the mask” and highlight the challenges, setbacks, and admiration she encountered as a pioneer in her field.
31. Writer Joan
Rivers wrote a grand total of 12 books from 1974 to 2014. Most of these were written in her characteristic humorous style and can be classified as memoir, comedy, and self-help books. The last book she wrote, titled Diary of a Mad Diva, was published in 2014, not long before her death. The book made it to the New York Times’ Best Seller list and she posthumously won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for it as well.
Rivers was often criticized for her “inappropriate” sense of humor. Starting her career in the 1960s, she joked about sex when women rarely dared to talk about it. As the years went by, nothing was off-limits for her, and she routinely made fun of celebrities’ appearances. Some ignored her, but many, like Adele and Kristen Stewart, were upset by her insensitive comments on their weight and abilities.
However, Rivers refused to back down or apologize for her jokes: “You can tune me out, you can click me off…I’m not going to bow down to political correctness.”
33. Stop! (Fashion) Police!
Rivers started co-hosting Fashion Police for E! in 2010. She was one of four panelists who commented on celebrity fashion. Rivers, in her typical style, displayed her sharp wit and sarcasm to the hilt. The show was so popular that the channel increased its run time from half an hour to a whole hour. Although it tried to make a comeback after her death in 2014, it never got the same status that it had during her life and was eventually canceled after a series finale in 2017.
34. Did Joan Know Best?
Rivers and her daughter did a popular daytime show, named Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best? The show follows Rivers as she moves to California to live with her daughter and grandson, Cooper. It got mixed reviews with many thinking Rivers was “trying too hard” to stay relevant, but some enjoying it as a light-hearted comedy.
On the other hand, her 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was widely praised. Roger Ebert called it “fascinating” and said it had “a lot of laughs in it.”
35. A Piece of Work
What made the documentary so universally admired was how effectively it was able to delve into Rivers' life. According to Ebert, there were no sympathy-garnering moments in it, because Rivers was never a victim. The film was a celebration of the highs and lows of her life, and of Rivers for being “a brave and stubborn woman, smart as a whip, superbly skilled.”
It was an effective portrayal of the catastrophic lows she had gone through in her life, and the spectacular highs she had achieved, by working harder than anyone else to get there.
36. A Dog’s Life
It would be pretty darn perfect to be a dog in the Rivers’ household. A huge dog lover, Rivers had four canines at the time of her death—all rescues. She said she didn’t understand people who didn’t love pets, because having a dog was a sure fire way of having a house that was “never empty.” She also admitted that she found loving dogs easier than loving people, because one could always depend on a dog to be a true and loyal friend.
Rivers loved her dogs so much she had three Louis XV-style armchairs for them, upholstered with “$300-per-yard French fabric.” She also had a silver Tiffany & Co. bowl, with her favorite dog Spike’s name engraved on it. The bowl eventually sold for $14,000!
37. Candid Confessions
Joan Rivers made the shocking confession on Howard Stern’s radio show, that she had been having several extra-marital affairs while married to Rosenburg. She admitted to having a one-night stand with Robert Mitchum and an extended affair with Gabriel Dell, all while she was still with her husband. She became great friends with Stern after that, who considered her “an aunt or a best friend who could make everything better” and who gave her a fitting eulogy at her funeral.
38. Not Your Usual Eulogy
Stern gave a raunchy, knee-slapping eulogy for Rivers on her funeral. For a split second the mourners were shocked when they heard him begin. However, they all got into the spirit and applauded it as he continued. Stern had been reluctant to speak, unsure that he might say something inappropriate. Later, he figured he should go with his instinct and give his friend a “great send-off.”
Comedian Margaret Cho agreed that it was “so wrong, but so right at the same time,” because it was “so Joan.”
39. Grandma Cool
Apart from all the other hats she wore, Rivers was primarily a loving mother and grandmother. Though their relationship was strained for some time after Rosenburg’s death, the mother and daughter managed to resolve their issues and were very close to each other after that. Rivers praised Melissa highly, saying that she was not only proud of her professional achievements, she also felt her daughter was 1,000 times better as a mother than she had ever been.
Every year, she would take her grandson, Cooper, and one of his friends on a week-long vacation dubbed “Grandma Week.” From Rome to Venice to watching Rocky on Broadway, Rivers had a wonderful relationship with her grandson.
40. A Trial Marriage
It was when she worked at the Bond Clothing Store in her youth that Joan Rivers met her first husband, James Sanger. He was the son of the store's merchandise manager. They got married in 1957, but the marriage was annulled six months later when Rivers found out Sanger did not want children and had not informed her of this before the wedding. “Our marriage license turned out to be a learner’s permit.”
41. Til Death do Us Part
Rosenburg was the executive producer of Fox Television’s Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. Unfortunately, the show did poorly and could not get good ratings. To make matters worse, Rosenburg and Fox were reportedly at odds with each other regarding their vision for the show. A year after its launch, the show was canceled and Rivers and Rosenburg were both fired from the network.
The stress of it all was too much for their marriage, and the two separated—but Rosenburg took it especially hard. Not long after their split, he died by suicide.
42. Marriage Woes
Although Rosenburg committed suicide after the horrible events of 1987, there may have been even more problems in his life. He had been in poor health for a while and had gone through bypass surgery after two heart attacks a few years earlier. Plus, his and Rivers' problems were apparently even worse than people realized: she later described their marriage as a “total sham” and confessed to having had several extra-marital affairs while they were still together.