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Joan Rivers dies at 81

Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Thursday, Joan Rivers died at the age of 81, after spending days in a medically induced coma.

"It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers," Melissa Rivers said in a statement. "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."

Rivers went into cardiac arrest after undergoing a procedure on her vocal cords at an outpatient clinic. She had been put into a medically-induced coma after being rushed to New York's Mt. Sinai hospital and treated there. She had been moved out of the hospital's ICU unit and into a private room on Wednesday.

Rivers was best known for poking holes in the façade of celebrities and celebrity culture. "I've never done Jay Leno, but I'm sort of glad about that. He wouldn't know what to do with someone funny," she once joked. Elizabeth Taylor, a frequent punchline of Rivers's jokes, once quipped that Rivers looked like a circus clown.

Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, NY., she graduated from Barnard in 1954 and dabbled in the fashion and fashion publicity industries until she began doing comedy shows in New York's Greenwich Village.

At the time, the only female stand-up comedian getting regular work was Phyllis Diller, who was funny but whose appearance and costume were part of the joke. Male comedians didn't have to don clown drag in order to prove their humor.

Rivers was bluntly honest about what she thought. At times, she was abrasive and not afraid to be mean in her comedy. She wasn't afraid to call out those she believed were phonies or hypocrites. And she was fearless about making enemies, which she did quite often.

The career-making moment for Rivers was her friendship/mentorship with Johnny Carson:

Carson had told Rivers that she was going to be a star after her first appearance on his show in 1965. She filled in as his permanent guest host:

Eventually, Rivers parlayed her success into her own show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, in 1986 — a move that angered Carson. She wasn't invited on The Tonight Show again until this year. But as People reported, her show out-rated Carson's on some nights:

Rivers was eventually shown the door in 1987, but not before she began to hone and distill the kind of comedy she became best known for.

"She gives us carte blanche to rip those freebie-crazed red-carpet deities to shreds at every opportunity," Simon Doonan wrote about Rivers in Slate last year. She made people uncomfortable and her jokes, weren't always kind — some, are downright crass. (In the weeks before her death, Rivers said some pretty awful thingsincluding a rant about Palestinians deserving to die.)

But, as Doonan explained, Rivers' brashness and audacity to push the envelope were needed.  "Without Joan and her complete lack of respect, we would all be stuck in a perpetual episode of Inside the Actors Studio," he added.

When Phyllis Diller died in 2012, Rivers said she had paved the way for future female comedians. The same could be said of Rivers. Her irreverent sense of humor can be found in some of today's popular acts. Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, and even Rivers's rival Chelsea Handler (whether she likes it or not) are furthering a tradition of unapologetic humor and blistering social commentary — a tradition that Rivers helped create.

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