Joan Rivers, who sadly died today at age 81, started doing stand-up in the early 1960s, working comedy clubs in Greenwich Village until she got her first break on The Tonight Show. She never stopped performing, and she never lost her caustic touch, her electrifying energy, and the blunt bravery with which she confronted every topic, no matter how shocking or controversial. Delving through her many TV appearances over the years is just a delight; here's a clip from every decade of her professional career that shows just how much she endured as a comedic talent.
Here's a 33-year-old Rivers performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, ripping into the ridiculous imbalanced burden placed on women to appeal to men. I defy you to watch this and not laugh out loud.
"When you finally go on the date, the girl has to be well dressed, her face has to look nice, the hair has to be in shape. The girl has to be the one that's bright, and pretty, intelligent, a good sport. 'Howard Johnsons again, hooray hooray!' It just kills me!"
Joan's monologue on The Carol Burnett Show sees her fearlessly interacting with the audience and trying to pick out the first wives from the second wives. She also comes out demanding applause for her figure, saying she finally found a bra that emphasizes her chest.
"You like to be curvy, you know what I'm telling you? My wedding night was a disaster, because I'm…zero-zero. My husband said 'Let me help you with the buttons,' and I said 'I'M NAKED!' Funny to you, high school kids!"
Rivers' relationship with Johnny Carson was long-lasting and bubbling with chemistry, and was sadly cut off later in 1986 when she launched a rival late-night talk show to his, after which he shockingly cut her out of his life. But this clip, which sees them reminiscing about their work together over the years, is just so delightful, especially her laughing hysterically as she tries to deliver a quip about Christie Brinkley.
Carson: "You never can look at me and do these things, can you?"
Rivers: [through laughter] "She's a living testament…that peroxide causes brain damage."
Here's Rivers on Comedy Club All-Stars in the early days of comedy on cable, which would become one of her mainstays in later life. She exults in being able to swear on TV for the first time.
"I love cable! Where else can you pay $39.50 a month to watch The Patty Duke Show that you saw 18 times for free?"
Rivers never stopped working (and if you haven't already, absolutely watch the great documentary A Piece of Work, streaming on Netflix, that gives some insight into what a creative force she was). But she always updated her act. Here she is at the Just for Laughs festival talking about her mother-in-law's death and wrestling with mortality in general.
"We're all getting older! I don't care! You're all sitting here, a very young crowd, going 'Oh, she's talking about death.' Let me tell you something, it happens to everyone. We all go through the same thing. At 40, you begin to lose your eyesight, I don't care who you are, you can't read the birthday card. At 50, the memory starts to go, at 60 you start to fart, just fart fart fart fart fart, and at 70 you lose your sense of smell, so between 60 and 70 it is a terrible time."
Rivers never came back to The Tonight Show while Carson was hosting, but finally returned to talk to Jimmy Fallon, 49 years after her first appearance. She's just as vital and caustic and hilarious as she ever was. And it seems fitting to end this piece on a harsh joke that provokes as many gasps as it does laughs (followed by a huge round of applause). Even in making her grand return to NBC, she was never one for unnecessary sentiment.
"They sent this big stretch Mercedes limo for us, and it got stuck, it wouldn't move for two and a half hours. And I'm thinking, you know, the Germans kills six million Jews, you can't fix a fucking carburetor?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.