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Joan Rivers was comedy pioneer

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Can we talk?

There were times when Joan Rivers aggravated the living daylights out of me when she was working a red carpet. Her lack of knowledge often created awkward moments such as the time she thought Anthony Hopkins was attending the Oscars with his mother but it turned out it was his wife. Or, identifying British actor Jim Broadbent as being from Australia.

Those bobbles aside, the passing of the 81-year-old Rivers means not only the loss of another Hollywood icon but a real comedy pioneer. There are few women who were as influential on comedy as Rivers. If they ever decide to make a Mount Rushmore for female comics, Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett and Moms Mabley would have to be top contenders to be included.

It wasn’t just what we saw on camera but Rivers did a lot in the world of comedy that few people ever got to see. Kathy Griffin constantly seeks out comedy mentors and she found a great one in Rivers.

“I really am very friendly with Joan Rivers and not only like in a fake Hollywood way, but many times I’ve just called her and said, ‘I’m at the end of my rope,’ and we’ll have dinner and really, really, really talk,” Griffin said in an interview for the PBS offering “Makers: Women Who Make America.”

Rivers was always a good interview whether it was talking about a new DVD release or her appearance on “Celebrity Apprentice.” She could make you laugh or be very serious about her love of comedy, show business, fashion and family. She was very forthright and honest about everything in her life. That became obvious to anyone who saw the reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” where mother and daughter often sparred in front of the cameras.

One topic they completely disagreed on was all of the plastic surgery done on Joan. Melissa voiced her concerns but knew her mother was not going to change her mind. They talked about the topic during interviews for the reality show.

Melissa said, “There’s certain topics with a parent that you know you’re not going to win and that are only going to cause a fight. I voice my opinion about it when I feel strongly. And in my opinion, it’s like enough, stop it. And it is a source of conflict. It really is. It really does bothers me, but it really does bother me.”

What now seems very haunting is that Melissa added, “Every time you go in, you go, ‘If I die.’ That’s why I’m like enough. But that’s why I’m like — Mom, you’re so sick.”

Joan’s response was “I knew that I was doing a lot of plastic surgery, because Melissa, one time, called me when Cooper was four years old and they had ‘Return of the Mummy,’ and he ran to the TV and went, ‘Grandma, Grandma.’ If you had a dollar for every stitch in the face of someone you’ve interviewed, you wouldn’t be sitting here. You know what I mean?”

Joan Rivers opened doors including being the first woman to host a late-night talk show. It cost Rivers her friendship with Johnny Carson because she had become such a part of his “Tonight Show.

Peter Jones, who made the “American Masters” documentary, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” talked about the rift between Rivers and Carson.

“Joan Rivers was Johnny’s pride and joy. And besides the marriages, I don’t think he was any more devastated. She didn’t tell him well in advance about her negotiations for her FOX show. He found out about it from another source. She called him, and he did hang up on her and never spoke to her again,” Jones says.

Rivers paid the price but Wanda Sykes and Cheslea Handler owe her for showing that women are just as funny as men when it comes to the chat show circuit.

Some of the jokes by Rivers were a little tasteless but she never apologized. The great ones don’t. They prefer to spend their energy moving their career — and their chosen profession — ahead. Rivers started doing that when female comedians were little more than a novelty act. We were lucky Rivers asked “can we talk?” because what she talked about helped change comedy in so many ways.

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