LOS ANGELES (AP) — On “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1967, Joan Rivers joked about society’s double-standard for women.
“A girl, you’re 30 years old, you’re not married, you’re an old maid,” she said. “A man, he’s 90 years old, he’s not married, he’s a catch.”
At the time, it was rare to see a female comic onstage, and even rarer for an entertainer to talk frankly about being a woman. A few years later, on “The Carol Burnett Show,” Rivers boasted about wearing a pushup bra, laughed about the lack of sex in long marriages and blatantly said men like second wives better.
Rivers, who died Thursday at 81, was a trailblazer for all comics, but especially for women.
David Letterman called her “a real pioneer for other women looking for careers in stand-up comedy” in his monologue Thursday. “And talk about guts – she would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable… The force of her comedy was overpowering.”
Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin, Louis CK, Marlon Wayans and Wanda Sykes are among those who consider Rivers a hero.
“Thank you Joan for paving the way for broads like me,” Sykes wrote on Twitter.
No topic was too taboo for Rivers, thus opening the door for Sarah Silverman to crack about racism and Margaret Cho to tell X-rated jokes and look cute while doing it.
“Every woman in comedy is indebted to her,” Amy Poehler said in a statement.
Rivers broke gender barriers because she was funny, fearless and persistent – and didn’t try to be like the guys. She loved fashion and looking glamorous onstage. A 1954 graduate of Barnard College, she was open about her desire to be married and the pressure on women to be both pretty and smart.
Like her comic peers at the time – George Carlin, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Cosby – Rivers found comedy in her own life and its challenges.
But while those men quickly went mainstream, Rivers’ road to fame was longer.
“I was the last one in the group to break through,” she wrote in the Hollywood Reporter in 2012. “Looking back, I think it was because I was a woman.”
Her breakthrough came on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, who told her on the air, “You’re gonna be a star.”
After many appearances on the show, Rivers was named its first “permanent guest host.” She held the position from 1983 to 1986, when she became the first woman to host a major-network late-night talk show of her own. Fox’s “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” was canceled after two seasons, but the rift it caused with Carson was permanent – he never spoke to her again. (Rivers’ husband, who produced her late-night show, committed suicide a few months after its cancellation.) Rivers finally returned to “The Tonight Show,” now hosted by Jimmy Fallon, as a guest earlier this year.
She loved performing, calling it “my drug of choice,” and never stopped working. Rivers published her 12th book, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” in July, hosted the E! network’s “Fashion Police” and starred in a reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” with her daughter, Melissa Rivers.
Melissa announced her mother’s death, which came a week after she suffered complications during a routine throat procedure.
Rivers’ influence, though, continues. She revolutionized red-carpet reporting, mixing her love of fashion with her love of snark and carving out a niche that was hers alone.
“She transcended the male comedy world,” said Virginia Commonwealth University professor Emilie Raymond. “She opened a whole new realm of what was acceptable for women to talk about: politics, sexuality and the notion of poking fun at celebrities in general.”
Though she was known for – and known to joke about – her love of plastic surgery, she said aging didn’t really matter in comedy.
“It matters in singing because the voice goes. It matters certainly in acting because you’re no longer the sexpot,” she wrote in 2012. “But in comedy, if you can tell a joke, they will gather around your deathbed. If you’re funny, you’re funny. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen at www.twitter.com/APSandy .