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Obituary: Joan Rivers, pioneering comedian for women

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Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers

AP

Joan Rivers

"What's so scary about death? I'll be lying next to Edgar for eternity, never moving. It'll be just like our honeymoon." Too soon? For Joan Rivers, nothing was too soon, off limits, taboo or untouchable. She wasn't just a pioneering comedian for women, she was a fearless fighter in the war on political correctness for the best part of 50 years.

She fought chauvinism, tragedy, conservatism, criticism and even her own age and sex to have her name go down in comedy legend. From her first TV appearance on America's all-conquering Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1965, Joan tore through convention with jokes that reverberated with shock, irony and hilarity. She got away with it for nigh on five decades because she was just so damn funny.

It was a triumph of staying power that she stayed relevant to the bitter end. In the last weeks of her life, Joan walked out of a live CNN interview after being accused of a lifetime of inappropriate humour. For a moment the 81-year-old turned serious to defend her acerbic wit. "Winston Churchill says if you make someone laugh you give them a little vacation," she blasted. "And maybe you take the worst thing in the world and make it funny; it's a vacation for a minute from horror. I was put on this earth to make people laugh." True to her show-stopping form, she walked out of the studio and into the next controversy.

It was early August and this time the questions put to the Jewish Queen of taboo was Gaza. In a cantankerous outburst littered with off-colour barbs, she railed against Palestinians. "If you're dead, you deserve to be dead, you started it." The media reaction was vicious. Even on the night of her death, critics took to social media to declare that karma had caught up with the elderly comic.

They had all missed the point. Rivers knew more than anyone that comedians are supposed to be outrageous, not righteous. She was never surprised that her material caused offence, she had planned all of it. Joan's brand was shock and awe and she knew her market well. Here was a loose-tongued Jewish entertainer in her 90th decade supporting Israel in a rant that was being taken far too seriously.

Even after the September 11 attacks, she said she found herself walking down a dusty Manhattan street and all she could think of was jokes. To stay in demand for 50 years, there can be no holding back, no minute wasted.

The New York widow was uniquely able to adapt to each decade she entered and found that Twitter was her perfect forum. "Hitler: like him or not he was a great dancer" was typical of her tweets. She once said that she would have made jokes in a concentration camp. "You have two choices: laugh or die."

To judge Joan Rivers on her last controversy would be a gross injustice to the memory of a life spent battling the odds. The Tonight Show regular became Johnny Carson's substitute host in the early 1980s, but was shocked to discover her name was left off NBC's list of his 10 possible replacements. When Fox offered Joan her own show on their new network as Carson's competitor, the NBC kingpin felt betrayed and never spoke to her again. Worse was to come.

The fallout from the Carson saga was devastating. In 1987 her Fox show was cancelled after just a year and unable to cope with the flop, her husband Edgar committed suicide. Their only child Melissa was 19 at the time and would later become her mother's reality TV show sidekick 20 years later. Such was their shared life on the road that Melissa soon adopted her mother's stage name Rivers over the family surname Rosenberg (Joan was born Molinsky).

Despite the tragedy, Joan Rivers was blacklisted by Carson and the boycott was upheld by his successor Jay Leno. It was only in March this year that she was finally invited back on to The Tonight Show by new host Jimmy Fallon, to mark 49 years since her debut. It was a fitting tribute to her unrelenting drive and ambition.

The comedian was a powerful force that could neither be stopped nor ignored. Even in her 80s she was still making jokes about breast cancer, abortion, sex, the Holocaust and death. Only her devoted fans realised that comedy doesn't have a code of conduct, especially when it came to portraying herself.

There were jokes about Edgar's suicide - "It was my fault. We were making love and I took the bag off my head"; her extensive cosmetic surgery: "I've had so much plastic surgery when I die they'll donate my body to a Tupperware party"; and her sex appeal: "My vagina is like Newark. Men know it's there, but they don't want to visit."

Life wasn't all about truthful, personal and abrasive stand-up about Hollywood stars ("Elizabeth Taylor's favourite food is seconds"). When she wasn't cracking unfiltered jokes she was pioneering celebrity support for AIDS charities, tirelessly campaigning for gay rights and was an honorary director of a suicide prevention movement. But her greatest achievement was smashing down the limitations for women in entertainment.

Joan Rivers came out screaming into a man's world in the 1960s and declared that women could say forbidden things too. She proved life and all its horrors was to be yelled at in full force, rather than smothered with the reverence of an emotionally devoid Jane Austen character. Most importantly, she never apologised for a single word. "Mick Jagger once said, 'fuck em if they don't get the joke'. And I love him. That comes with age. Knowing it's their problem, not mine."

Scottish playwright Simon Farquhar wrote of Rivers' death: "She subscribed to the belief that comedians were clowns crying on the inside and claimed that deep down she was a sensitive soul, but also argued that, "I would never make fun of a civilian sitting in the audience. It's not fair. They don't have the comeback. They don't have the F-you money. But celebrities are open game".

She was scattergun but often hit a bullseye - "you don't need big boobs to be feminine - look at Liberace". But above all it was anger that fuelled her comedy: she strove to laugh at what troubled her and was once asked, "Don't you want to be loved just for yourself?" She replied: "I just want to be loved. Who cares what for?"

Her dream to continue performing into her 90s ended this week when she was taken off a life support machine. One of her wishes will stand however; a red carpet at the funeral. A suitably inappropriate quip echoes from the grave. "Someone must've heard wrong. I wanted to be on wife support, not life support. Wife support. You know, that's my one regret in life. I never got alimony."

Thanks for the laughs. Joan Rivers' best jokes

• I wish I had a twin so I could know what I'd look like without plastic surgery

• I was such a dog, to get me down the aisle they threw a bone

• A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes 19 or 20 mistakes, she's a tramp

• At my funeral, I want Meryl Streep crying in five different accents

• Joan Collins told a reporter that she hasn't had plastic surgery; come on . . . she's had more tucks than a motel bedsheet

• I am definitely going to watch the Emmys this year My makeup team is nominated for Best Special Effects

• I hate thin people: 'Oh, does the tampon make me look fat?'

• Women should look good. Work on yourselves. Education? I spit on education. No man is ever going to put his hand up your dress looking for a library card

• My love life is like a piece of Swiss cheese; most of it's missing, and what's there stinks

• It was a Jewish porno film . . . one minute of sex and nine minutes of guilt

Sunday Independent