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Comedian Joan Rivers dead at 81

Friday - 9/5/2014, 2:28am  ET

FILE - This Oct. 5, 2009 file photo shows Joan Rivers posing as she presents "Comedy Roast with Joan Rivers " during the 25th MIPCOM (International Film and Programme Market for TV, Video, Cable and Satellite) in Cannes, southeastern France. Rivers, the raucous, acid-tongued comedian who crashed the male-dominated realm of late-night talk shows and turned Hollywood red carpets into danger zones for badly dressed celebrities, died Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. She was 81. Rivers was hospitalized Aug. 28, after going into cardiac arrest at a doctor's office. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File)
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LYNN ELBER
AP Television Writer

Joan Rivers, the raucous, acid-tongued comedian who crashed the male-dominated realm of late-night talk shows and turned Hollywood red carpets into danger zones for badly dressed celebrities, died Thursday. She was 81.

Rivers died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, surrounded by family and close friends, daughter Melissa Rivers said. She was hospitalized Aug. 28 after going into cardiac arrest in a doctor's office following a routine procedure. The New York state health department is investigating the circumstances.

"My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh," Melissa Rivers said. "Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon."

Upon hearing of her death, reaction poured out from dozens of notables, ranging from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Rivers' peer-in-comedy Don Rickles.

"Knowing her, working with her and enjoying the fun times of life with her was special. She will always be in our hearts," Rickles said in a statement.

Under the immobile, plastic surgery-crafted veneer that became Joan Rivers' unapologetic trademark as she aged, her wit remained as vibrantly raw and unruly as when she first broke her way into a comedy world belonging largely to men.

In a 2010 "Late Show" interview, David Letterman broached the plastic surgery issue: "You don't look exactly like the Joan Rivers I used to know." Rivers didn't flinch.

"Our business is so youthful. ... You do little tweaks, and I think if a woman wants to look good, or a man, do it," she said. "It's not about anybody else."

Fashion and acting were the early dreams of the woman who grew up as a self-described "fatty," but it was humor that paid the bills and ultimately made Rivers a star. She refused to cede the spotlight as the decades passed, working vigorously until her death.

"I have never wanted to be a day less than I am," she said in a 2013 interview with The Associated Press. "People say, 'I wish I were 30 again.' Nahhh! I'm very happy HERE. It's great. It gets better and better. And then, of course, we die," she quipped.

Rivers was a scrapper, rebuilding her career and life after a failed attempt to make it as a late-night host was followed closely by her husband's suicide.

Rivers' style was hard-driving from the start and her material only got sharper. She was ready to slam anyone. A favored target was Elizabeth Taylor's weight ("her favorite food is seconds"), but the comedian kept current with verbal assaults on Miley Cyrus and other newcomers.

With her raspy voice and brash New York accent, Rivers turned the red carpet of the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes into a stalking ground for E! Entertainment, where she first began working in 1994. Her familiar query -- "Who are you wearing?" -- would quickly give way to such snarky commentary as her assessment of Adele's Grammy outfit: The singer looked like she was sitting on a teapot.

The barbs could turn inward as well, with Rivers mocking everything from her proclaimed lack of sex appeal ("my best birth control now is just to leave the lights on") to her own mortality.

In 2007, Rivers and her partner-in-slime, daughter Melissa, were dropped by their new employer, the TV Guide Channel, and replaced by actress Lisa Rinna. But the Rivers' women returned to E! and found new success with "Fashion Police," which Rivers hosted and her daughter produced.

Joan Rivers never relaxed, always looking for the next and better punchline.

"The trouble with me is, I make jokes too often," she told the AP in 2013, just days after the death of her older sister. "I was making jokes yesterday at the funeral home. That's how I get through life. Life is SO difficult -- everybody's been through something! But you laugh at it, it becomes smaller."

She had faced true crisis in the mid-1980s. Edgar Rosenberg, her husband of 23 years, committed suicide in 1987 after she was fired from her Fox talk show, which he produced. The show's failure was a major factor, Rivers said. Rosenberg's suicide also temporarily derailed her career.

"Nobody wants to see someone whose husband has killed himself do comedy four weeks later," she told The New York Times in 1990.

Rivers had originally entered show business with the dream of being an actress, but comedy was a way to pay the bills while she auditioned for dramatic roles. "Somebody said, 'You can make six dollars standing up in a club,'" she told the AP, "and I said, 'Here I go!' It was better than typing all day."

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