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Updated: Fri, 05 Sep 2014 01:25:38 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Joan Rivers dead in New York at 81



Joan Rivers' weekly Fashion Police series is on hiatus as authorities investigate the conditions surrounding her cardiac arrest during a procedure at a New York clinic. Eric Thayer/Reuters

Joan Rivers' weekly Fashion Police series is on hiatus as authorities investigate the conditions surrounding her cardiac arrest during a procedure at a New York clinic. Eric Thayer/Reuters

Joan Rivers, the brash comedian who enjoyed a five-decade career on stage and television, died Thursday. 

She was 81.

Daughter Melissa Rivers said she died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, surrounded by family and close friends.

"My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh," Melissa Rivers said. "Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."

Rivers was hospitalized in New York on Aug. 28 after she stopped breathing during a surgical procedure on her vocal cords and suffered cardiac arrest.

The New York state health department is investigating the circumstances surrounding her cardiac arrest during the outpatient procedure at an endoscopy clinic.

Arguably the world's most famous female comedian, Rivers popularized the biting lead-in, "Can we talk?" and blazed a trail in the male-dominated world of standup in a long and varied career. 

Along the way, she overcame personal and professional trials.

"I have never wanted to be a day less than I am," she insisted in a 2013 interview with The Associated Press. "People say, `I wish I were 30 again.' Nahhh! I'm very happy here. It's great. It gets better and better. And then, of course, we die," she quipped.

At the height of her popularity in the mid-1980s, she was fired just seven months after realizing a dream of hosting her own late night talk show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. 

Edgar Rosenberg, her husband of 22 years and manager, would commit suicide just weeks after the cancellation.

The workaholic Rivers recovered from those twin blows and stayed relevant in recent years with a demanding schedule of standup work, and a television career increasingly spent as a celebrity fashion arbiter.

"No one loved life, laughter, and a good time more than Joan. We would have dinner and laugh and gossip and I always left the table smiling," said Barbara Walters Thursday. "She was a brassy, often outrageous, and hilarious performer who made millions laugh. In private, she was the picture of elegance and class. I will miss her."

Early years

Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933, her family moved to the suburbs of Westchester, N.Y. when she was nine.

The daughter of a physician, she graduated from Barnard College, and after a brief turn as a copywriter among other jobs, she embarked on a stage career that involved dramatic plays and, increasingly, comedy.

 She spent a year at Second City in Chicago in 1961, performed standup for a time under the stage name Pepper January, and wrote jokes for performers such as Phyllis Diller and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

"I started out on the borscht circuit in the Catskills for $6 a night," she once told the Associated Press, and she also regularly worked the more hip Greenwich Village comedy scene in the '60s.

Appearances on television soon multiplied. Ed Sullivan once introduced her as "my daffy little friend," and she was quickly brought back for recurring visits after making her first appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in 1965.

"When you're courting, you know, you lie a lot," the newly wed Rivers said in a New York Times profile that same year. "Like I lied. I said I cook. And he lied. He said he couldn't care less. You wouldn't believe the moments of truth we've had in the kitchen."

It was typical of her early standup material: short, sharp and self-deprecating travails of single and married women. While she always praised female forbearers like Diller, she was inclined to say that her early act was more akin to Woody Allen's neurotic routine.

Her material would grow more risqué through the 1970s, sometimes through the device of a fictitious friend of questionable morals, Heidi Abramowitz.

"Crazy Glue couldn't keep this girl's knees together," she said of the character. "When she bought a car she thought the front seat was optional."

Talk shows

Rivers tried branching out by writing and directing the 1978 male pregnancy tale The Rabbit Test starring Billy Crystal, but the film was not a success.

She would be more at home on Las Vegas stages or behind the desk in Burbank, Calif., where she would become the Tonight Show's most frequent guest host whenever Carson took leave.

The relationship was irreparably damaged when she bolted for her own show on the Fox network in 1986. Carson's representatives claimed he was irate that Rivers never called him before or after the negotiations; she always maintained a call was placed after the deal was struck, but the damage was done.

By all accounts, the pair never spoke again.

The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers gained respectable ratings when it began in October 1986, but struggled to get guests in a competitive landscape. In addition to the chastened Carson on NBC, frequent Tonight Show guest host David Brenner debuted his own ill-fated syndicated talk show that year. 

Mark Breslin, founder of the Toronto-based Yuk Yuk's comedy clubs, was a producer on Rivers's show, and on Thursday lauded her dedication to the show and staff. 

"Joan would spend time in the writers' room every day, and loved the writers more than anybody else, and knew them by name and, in fact, knew the names of their dogs," Breslin told CBC News. 

- WATCH | Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

But internal squabbles and a dearth of strong lead-in programs on fledgling Fox, trying to compete with the traditional Big Three networks, helped sink her show. Rivers was out by May 1987, less than a year into a reported three-year pact.

Family ties

Rivers said in recent years she wouldn't have enjoyed a career without Edgar Rosenberg's machinations. Their marriage, predictably, was fair game for stage material (Sample: "Last night I asked my husband what's his favourite position, and he said, 'Next door.'")

Rosenberg died at the age of 62, pill bottles found near his body. Rivers believed his moods forever changed as a result of drugs prescribed after a 1984 heart attack.

The redoubtable Rivers rebuilt her career. She had already signed on as a Hollywood Squares regular just before her husband's death, and she began selling a line of fashion merchandise on shopping channel QVC.

She even appeared in a TV movie with daughter Melissa, Tears and Laughter, which depicted their once-rocky relationship and the loss of her husband.

More well-received was her own daytime talk show, which made its debut in 1989 (she had also briefly hosted a daytime show in the late 1960s). The Joan Rivers Show ran for four years and won her a daytime Emmy. 

A stage portrayal of title character Sally Marr led to Tony and Drama Desk nominations in 1994.

Red carpet

Whatever her ambitions to be respected as a serious artist, Rivers never shied away from populist fare. In 1994, she began a two-decade run carving up the fashion stylings of celebrities at awards shows, for the most part on E! Network.

"Nobody watched the red carpet before Joan," comedian Kathy Griffin said in a rare sincere moment during a 2009 Comedy Central roast of Rivers. "[She] put that whole thing on the map."

The catty red carpet criticisms would go on to form the basis of a regular show, Fashion Police.

Those developments shaped her standup routine, which began to feature more material focused on celebrities and pop culture. An equal-opportunity offender, on her media tour for the 2012 book I Hate Everyone, Starting With Me, she bemoaned the politically correct temper of the times. (Her latest book, Diary of a Mad Diva, was released this summer.)

Her act was not the only thing being transformed. 

Beginning in the 1980s, Rivers began to undergo "little bits and tweaks" of plastic surgery, as she described the procedures in her 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

"I was never the natural beauty. No man has ever, ever told me I'm beautiful," she said in the film.

Rivers once described herself as the "plastic surgery poster girl" and joked about her numerous procedures. They became more frequent, but she laughed off as ludicrous a British report that claimed she'd gone under the knife hundreds of times.

Her appearances in recent times were characteristically unpredictable: a lauded, memorable cameo on Louie with comedian Louis C.K. on the one hand, a strange walk-off during a CNN interview earlier this year at the other extreme.

"I never saw someone attack a stage with so much energy. She was a controlled lightning bolt. She was a prolific and unpredictable, joyful joke writer. She loved comedy. She loved the audience," said Louis C.K. "She was a great actress and should have done that more. She loved living and working. She was kind. She was real. She was brave. She was funny and you just wanted to be around her. I looked up to her. I learned from her. I loved her. I liked her. And I already miss her very much."

She came full circle in May, with her first sit-down appearance on the Tonight Show in nearly three decades.

Host Jimmy Fallon was flummoxed when her first joke, ostensibly about car trouble, contained a Holocaust reference. 

Rivers, who often said she had no interest in retiring, had several standup dates booked for England and the U.S. this fall.

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