Joan Rivers, the grand dame of the barbed quip who was as divisive as she was talented, has died aged 81.

Joan Rivers: " There is not one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl."

Joan Rivers: ” There is not one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl.”

At a young age, Rivers’ unconventional looks killed her dreams of being an actress. “I wasn’t pretty, and at that time you had to be an 8-by-10 glossy, unretouched,” she said in a 1973 Los Angeles Times interview. Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 8 1933, her first marriage was annulled after five months and Rivers was forced to find work as a temporary clerk to finance her stage ambitions. She soon discovered that she could earn $5 a night as a stand-up comic at a local club (50 cents more than she was earning as a clerk) and made her professional comedy debut in 1960.

She left the world of acting behind but used her skills in that area to develop a confidential style of performance. Leaning into an audience, she would start her skits with the most gentle of introductions, which later became her catchphrase: “can we talk?” Her material wore velvet gloves, cloaking vicious verbal jabs within intimate patter. Throughout her career, she was renowned for her masochistic humour, partly based on the work of fellow comic Lenny Bruce who she saw in the early Sixties (“He confirmed my ideas about comedy, of using personal pain and insight to generate comedic material.”).

She began in cabaret clubs like The Duplex and various strip joints and towards the end of her life returned to them. In between, she scaled the heights of her art form. During the early 1980s, she became the first woman regularly to host the Tonight Show when presenter Johnny Carson was on holiday before coming over to the UK in 1986 to film six eponymous TV programmes. Her small screen stint on this side of the pond attracted up to 11 million viewers – in comparison, one of last year’s most popular dramas Broadchurch attracted 7.8 million viewers on average.

Rivers kept up with the times, releasing some of her more barbed comments via Twitter. Her career experienced an upswing during the last years of her life as she continued performing both live and on television. Vale, Joan Rivers: in the words of singer Le Gateau Chocolat, you were “crazy, controversial, often sprinting passed the line, severally self-deprecating, painfully honest, sometimes cruel but belly achingly funny”.

As someone who lived and died by what came from her mouth, it is fitting we say goodbye with some of her own words.

There are many self-help books by Ph.D.s, but I hold a different degree: an I.B.T.I.A.— I’ve Been Through It All. This degree comes not on parchment but gauze, and it entitles me to tell you that there is a way to get through any misfortune.

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

It’s so long since I’ve had sex I’ve forgotten who ties up who.

I was dating a transvestite, and my mother said, “Marry him, you’ll double your wardrobe.” 

The first time I see a jogger smiling, I’ll consider it.

I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.

I blame myself for David Gest. It was me who told Liza Minnelli to find herself a man who wouldn’t sleep with other women.

People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.

My earliest childhood memory was watching my parents loosen the wheels on my stroller.

Russell Brand has announced that he plans to write a series of children’s books. First up: “Horton Hears a Heroin Dealer.”

Don’t talk to me about Valentine’s Day. At my age, an affair of the heart is a bypass.

Want to know why women don’t blink during foreplay? Not enough time. 

The whole Michael Jackson thing was my fault. I told him to date only 28-year-olds. Who knew he would find 20 of them?

You know it’s time to start using mouthwash when your dentist leaves the room and sends in a canary.

My best birth control now is just to leave the lights on.

Boy George is all England needs – another queen who can’t dress.

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is God’s gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Why should a woman cook? So her husband can say ‘My wife makes a delicious cake’ to some hooker?

Grandchildren can be so f-cking annoying. How many times can you go, ‘And the cow goes moo and the pig goes oink’? It’s like talking to a supermodel.

I hate thin people. “Oh, does the tampon make me look fat?”

There is not one female comic who was beautiful as a little girl.

Everyone forgets comedians are actors. There’s no question about it. A Robin Williams cannot say the same line every night for 40 weeks and make it sound fresh unless he’s doing an acting job.

Is Elizabeth Taylor fat? Her favorite food is seconds.

I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.

I’m Jewish. I don’t work out. If God had wanted us to bend over, He would have put diamonds on the floor.

I blame my mother for my poor sex life. All she told me was ‘the man goes on top and the woman underneath.’ For three years my husband and I slept in bunk beds.

I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.

Further reading

In His Own Words: Robin Williams (1951-2014)