Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
“Can we talk?” In the minds of millions of Americans, this common phrase conjures up the image of Joan Rivers, the woman who realized in the mid-1960s that “the country was ready for something new–a woman comedian talking about life from a woman’s point of view” (Enter Talking).
In revues, nightclub acts, and concert halls (in the early 1960s), and to a vast new audience via television in the 1970s and 1980s, Joan Rivers popularized and perfected a genre of comedy that challenged reigning social conventions. Her willingness to “say what is really on everyone’s mind” was coupled with an ingénue quality. This made her a less-than-threatening figure and enabled her to popularize the type of monologue that had previously been the domain of male comedians: Their acts combined social criticism with sharp wit, and Rivers was soon to join them.
She paid homage to these pioneers in her 1986 autobiography, Enter Talking. Hearing Lenny Bruce perform in the village was for her “an event that forever changed my comedy life…. Boom! there he was, an obscenity among the pleasant routines of the Establishment” (Enter Talking).
Influenced by Bruce, Rivers worked assiduously on her own routines and became a skillful crafter of comedic scripts for herself and others. Among her early writing credits are routines for the Phyllis Diller Show, episodes of Candid Camera, and material for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
It was on the Tonight Show, in 1965, that Rivers got her big national break. Introduced as one of the writers for the show, she and Carson engaged in a hilariously funny dialogue. As Rivers remembered it, “At the end of the show he was wiping his eyes. He said, right on the air, ‘God you’re funny. You’re going to be a star'” (Enter Talking).
Born in Brooklyn, New York, as Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933, Rivers was the youngest daughter of Beatrice (Grushman) and Meyer Molinsky, a doctor. Both of her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants from the Odessa area. Despite the geographical proximity of their origins, Rivers’s parents came from vastly different socioeconomic circumstances.