Irreverent and unapologetic comedian Joan Rivers dies at 81

BY Colleen Shalby  September 4, 2014 at 3:22 PM EDT
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Comedian Joan Rivers in 1968 in New York City. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Comedian and television star Joan Rivers, known for her no-holds-barred approach to comedy, has died, her family said in a statement. She was 81.

Joan Rivers began a career in stand-up comedy in the 1950s, a time when females were exceedingly rare in the field. She was frank and often self deprecating. She joked about her pregnancy, her mother’s desperate attempts to marry her off and later about her own cosmetic surgery. “Screw kindness. You have to tell the truth, that’s what comedy is all about,” Rivers once said.

She was propelled into the limelight in 1965 when Johnny Carson invited her on “The Tonight Show.”

Rivers became one of Carson’s most recurring guests. Eighteen years later, the comedian accepted an offer for her own late night show on the newly established Fox Network. It was a decision that ultimately ended her friendship with Carson.

Though the late night gig didn’t last long, it further cemented Rivers’ position in the entertainment business. She soon landed a daytime talk show that lasted for five years, and earned her a Daytime Emmy.

Comedian Joan Rivers during an interview with host Johnny Carson on April 25, 1986. Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

Comedian Joan Rivers during an interview with host Johnny Carson on April 25, 1986. Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

In 1994, she and daughter Melissa Rivers hosted the pre-Golden Globes show on E!. The pair would go on to be hosts of E!’s “Fashion Police,” and star in the reality show, “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”

On PBS’s “Pioneers of Television” series in 2013, Rivers said she didn’t like the term “pioneer.”

“I don’t like it when the ladies come up and say, ‘oh you broke barriers for women.’ I’m still breaking barriers. … I could still take you sweetheart with both hands tied behind my back,” she said. “Am I proud to be a pioneer? I’m not a pioneer. I’m still in the trenches. I’m still breaking ground.”

Rivers had been admitted to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York last week after after she had reportedly stopped breathing while undergoing a throat procedure at a medical clinic.

Melissa said in a statement that her mother died peacefully surrounded by family and close friends.

“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,” the statement read.

Jenny Marder contributed to this report.