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Comedian Joan Rivers dead at 81

Published: Thursday, Sept. 4 2014 1:26 p.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Sept. 4 2014 1:26 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this May 14, 2014 file photo, TV personality Joan Rivers attends A Celebration of Barbara Walters in New York. Melissa Rivers announced Thursday, Sept. 4, that her mother Joan died Thursday, in New York. Rivers was hospitalized Aug. 28, after going into cardiac arrest at a doctor's office.

AP, File, Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision

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 was hospitalized last week after she went into cardiac arrest at a Manhattan doctor's office following a routine procedure. Daughter Melissa Rivers said she died at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, surrounded by family and close friends.

"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."

Rivers — who made "Can we talk?" a trademark of her routines — never mellowed during her half-century-long career. She had insults ready for all races, genders and creeds. She moved from longtime targets such as the weight problems of Elizabeth Taylor, of whom she said "her favorite food is seconds," to newer foes such as Miley Cyrus, and continued to appear on stage and on TV into her 80s.

Comedy was not only her calling, but her therapy, as she turned her life inside out for laughs, mocking everything from her proclaimed lack of sex appeal ("My best birth control now is just to leave the lights on") to even her own mortality.

"I have never wanted to be a day less than I am," she insisted 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.

With her red-carpet query "Who are you wearing?", the raspy-voiced blonde with the brash New York accent also helped patent pre-awards commentary — and the snarky criticism that often accompanies it, like cracking that Adele's Grammy wardrobe made the singer look like she was sitting on a teapot. Rivers slammed actors at the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes for E! Entertainment. 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 they found new success on E! with "Fashion Police," which Rivers hosted and her daughter produced.

No performer worked harder, was more resilient or tenacious. She never stopped writing, testing and fine-tuning her jokes.

"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."

In the early 1960s, comedy was a man's game and the only women comics she could look to were Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller. But she worked her way up from local clubs in New York until, in 1965, she landed her big break on "The Tonight Show" after numerous rejections. "God, you're funny. You're going to be a star," host Johnny Carson told her after she had rocked the audience with laughter.

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