Joan Rivers passed away on September 4 at age 81. Here, performing in St. Charles, Illinois in 2012. (© Rob Grabowski/Retna Ltd./Corbis)
An undated photo of comics David Brenner and Rivers at the Starbuck nightclub in New York City (Hefferson Siebert/Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Rivers greeting Nancy Reagan at a welcoming luncheon for the first lady in Dallas. Looking on is Betty Rendel, head of the National Federation of Republican Women. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)
Rivers became a television star in the 1980s, hosting "The Late Show" from 1986 to 1987 and "The Joan Rivers Show" from 1989 to 1993. (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Fashion Police co-executive producer (and daughter) Melissa Rivers answers a question at the E! panel during the Television Critics Association summer press tour, as host Joan Rivers and co-host Kelly Osbourne listen (© MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters/Corbis)
Joan Rivers performing at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL. on March 31, 2012 (© Rob Grabowski/Retna Ltd./Corbis)
Rivers on a Macy's 84th Annual Thanksgiving Day Parade float, 2010 (© John A. Angelillo/Corbis)
Rivers at a standing room only book signing of "Diary of A Mad Diva" at the Union Square Barnes & Noble two months ago (© EM Hillock/Splash News/Corbis)
Fans gathered at Rivers' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame following her death on September 4 at age 81. (Ted Soqui/Corbis)

Smithsonian Curators Remember Joan Rivers

Entertainment curators from the Institution discuss the legendary comic who died yesterday

smithsonian.com

"Life is very tough," Joan Rivers once said. "If you don't laugh, it's tough."

Rivers died yesterday, September 4, following a medically-induced coma and complications that arose last week during a vocal cords procedure, including cardiac arrest. "My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh," Melissa Rivers, her daughter, said in a statement. "Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."

"She was a great social satirist, including self-satire," says Amy Henderson, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. "She was not afraid to be herself," Henderson adds. "She was fearless."

Rivers once said that because she's had so much plastic surgery, "when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware."

Rivers was 81. Her career took off in the 1960s as a stand-up comic and temporary host of "The Tonight Show," filling in for Johnny Carson. She went on to host her own programs in the 1980s, "The Late Show" and "The Joan Rivers Show." In the 2000s, Rivers reached new audiences as a fashion critic and with reality television.

"Her humor depended totally on putting herself down, which I found ironic because she spent so much time trying to make herself look terrifc," says Dwight Blocker Bowers, entertainment curator at National Museum of American History.

The American History museum does have artifacts related to women in comedy; in 2007 it acquired Phyllis Diller's joke cabinet, containing 50,000 index cards on which Diller had recorded her jokes from 1955 to 2000. Diller died in 2012. Rivers also kept her jokes on file, as shown in the 2010 documentary about her life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

About Max Kutner
Max Kutner

Max Kutner was the editorial intern for Smithsonian. He is now a staff writer at Newsweek and has contributed to Boston magazine and other publications.

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