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Groundbreaking comedian Joan Rivers dies at 81

Click through clips of Joan Rivers slinging jokes today. Listen to her talk about bras and hot flashes and third wives.

Uncomfortable? Good. She would have done her job once more. She would have asked "Can we talk?" and said something so rawly female, so stripped of pretense and polish it either made you squirm, tsk, or exhale relief because, like you, she was imperfect.

There was something paradoxical about Ms. Rivers, who died Thursday after several days on life support amid complications from throat surgery. The groundbreaking comedian built a career as the ugly duckling, the Brooklyn Bridget Jones wearing her sagging chest on her sleeve. But she was always striving for distinction, whether in her nipped and tucked face, or in the unrelenting work she tackled in her half-century career.

"Joan has a fanaticism," her agent Larry Thompson said in her 2010 documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. "A maniacal focus to succeed and works at it every day."

It's easy to forget Ms. Rivers was 81. There was all the plastic surgery, sure. But she hung like a sequin on a vintage gown, steadily working every year to hold her shine.

As recently as March, she took a pie to the face from Miss Piggy to promote her QVC jewelry. She embraced the Web with In Bed With Joan, a YouTube talk show in which she literally interviewed celebrities in bed. She still sat on Fashion Police, a show based on the particular style of red carpet snarking she invented.

People were iconic after they were dead, she joked. She hadn't opened doors for female comics but was still opening them. She was still touring. In March, she came to the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.

She picked local union stagehand Larry Lonsdale, 55, to lift her onto the piano at that show. She razzed him, he said, and afterward signed a poster and gave him scarves from her collection for his daughters.

"People take her a couple different ways," said Lonsdale, of Palm Harbor. "Some people get offended by her. But at the end of the night, she was very sincere."

Ms. Rivers had attempted to find peace with her place in an increasingly rigid world.

"I think God divides," she said in a 1984 routine. "I think if he really makes you gorgeous with everything going on with the bazoomies and the hair, he makes you stupid."

She was born in New York to Russian Jewish immigrants on June 8, 1933. Though her mother wanted her to be a wife, she wanted to be an actor. She delved into comedy between auditions and started honing her signature standup after college.

She was both noticed and admonished for commentary about sex and abortions before anyone, let alone women, spoke of such things on TV. She delivered weighty jokes with an underlying sweetness that confused the context.

Ms. Rivers first appeared on The Tonight Show in 1965. She became permanent guest host for Johnny Carson, her mentor, in the 1980s and famously lost his friendship when she got a short-lived competing show on Fox in 1986. The move made her a pioneer female talk show host, but the story goes that Carson never talked to her again. She was banned from Tonight and didn't reappear until 2014.

Ms. Rivers experienced very real pain. Her longtime husband Edgar Rosenberg, with whom she had her only child, Melissa Rivers, committed suicide in 1987. She wrote of battling bulimia and thinking about suicide herself.

"I was never the natural beauty," she said in her 2010 documentary. "No man has ever, ever told me I'm beautiful."

The film followed a slow year in her career. It displayed her lavish, gilded lifestyle and shone light on her work process, including a card catalog of jokes organized by categories like "politically incorrect," "bras" and "no self worth."

But the documentary also revealed the raw emotions beneath the comedy, how she felt about becoming the butt of her own plastic surgery joke, and about her desire to be loved and taken seriously as an actor. At a gig in Wisconsin, she fired back at a heckler who called her insensitive.

"Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot," she said.

Ms. Rivers and her daughter started hosting E!'s live red carpet preshows for awards shows in the mid 90s, reforming the red carpet into the kind of nitty-gritty fashion dissection we're accustomed to today. She famously asked, "Who are you wearing?" and sometimes told celebrities they looked bad right to their faces.

She left the red carpet over a decade later, dismayed by how publicists had quashed her ability to sass celebrities. In a March interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, she lamented today's perfectly honed media starlets and pined for the days of Bjork's swan dress and Celine Dion in a backward suit.

"It's sad the way they all look good," she said.

Ms. Rivers took her share of criticism for criticizing others. But perhaps rather than proclaiming superiority, she was leveling the field. She was doing what we all do when we're fat and lonely on the couch: We talk about other people.

We're human, Ms. Rivers was saying. We wear ugly things. We have flat chests and body hair, and we're not as important as we think we are. Perfection isn't attainable and the truth is more interesting, anyway.

Can we talk about it?

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

Groundbreaking comedian Joan Rivers dies at 81 09/04/14 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2014 11:27pm]

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