Joan Rivers dead: Comedian dies in New York, aged 81

The comedian was known for her sharp-tongued and controversial routines

The controversial comedian Joan Rivers has died a week after suffering a heart attack during a routine procedure at a clinic.

Shortly before her death, Ms Rivers, the first woman to break into late-night comedy, was moved from intensive care into a private room and was surrounded by family and friends when she died.

Her daughter, Melissa, announced the death, in a New York hospital, in a short statement in which she said: “It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers.

“She passed peacefully at 1.17pm surrounded by family and close friends. My son and I would like to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff of Mount Sinai Hospital for the amazing care they provided for my mother.

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

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She had been in intensive care for a week after stopping breathing at a clinic during a routine procedure. The New York state health department is investigating the circumstances surrounding her collapse.

In tributes she was described by Will Smith as “the Queen of comedy”, by William Shatner as “a comedic legend” and by Ricky Gervais as, “Funny & fearless. Truly one of a kind.”

Whoopi Goldberg, who followed her into comedy, wished her, “Bon voyage” while Cindy Lauper said: “She inspired me. She made me laugh since I was a kid, I loved her so much.”

The novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford said: “Joan was a great friend to have. Aside from her humour and comedic talents, she also made her friends laugh in private. Hospitable and generous to a fault, she was loyal and always there for all of us. She will be terribly missed.

“Just imagine: we won't hear those witty, sometimes caustic, but always funny one-liners ever again. Goodbye Joan Rivers. You'll always be in our hearts.”

Rivers, with the catchphrase “Can we talk?” was known for an acerbic and uncompromising humour, often foul-mouthed and far from politically correct. Elizabeth Taylor's weight problems were a favourite target - “Her favourite food is seconds.”

Earlier this year she explained: “I mock everybody, regardless of race, creed or colour. Every joke I make, no matter how tasteless, is there to draw attention to something I really care about.”

She said one of her motivations was that by mocking something it would become less of a threat: “If you laugh at something, you shrink the dragon.”

As a comedian she regarded nothing and no one as off-limits, even being happy to seek humour out the Holocaust and figures such as Anne Frank.

But she was also ridiculed herself and frequently sought to do so, especially her face-lifts and plastic surgery - “When I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”

At school in New York she was “the class wit” but went on the study for degrees in English and anthropology after her father threatened to have her committed if she trained as an actress.

She attributed much of her success to her “immigrant mentality”, having been born to Russian immigrants in America in 1933, and said she got her sense of humour from her father, a doctor.

Her big break in showbusiness came in 1965 on The Tonight Show: Starring Johnny Carson and was later given the role of permanent guest host on the show.

By the 1970s her “Can we talk?” catchphrase was known across America and in 1986 she was given her own talkshow in opposition to Carson's - he never talked to her again. By then she was one of the best know comedians in the country and played to packed audiences at Carnegie Hall.

Her first marriage, to James Sanger, lasted just six months but after a four-day courtship she went on to marry Edgar Rosenberg, a British television producer. He killed himself in 1987 and Rivers was so devastated that she became bullemic and considered suicide herself.

She recovered and continued to work until her death. In July she told the Toronto Star: “I'm terrified if it looks like nobody wants me. How long will that go on? Forever. In our business, you never know.... And it's not the money. I joke about that enough but that isn't what drives me. I love the performing. I love the work.”

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