Her delivery was like an automatic sprinkler: fast, relentless and sometimes prone to stick, soaking a comic riff into a muddy swamp.
She could be hilarious, and other times, almost wincingly off the mark. Most days, Joan Rivers, who died at 81 on Thursday, looked as if she couldn't stop herself, as if she stopped telling jokes the well would dry up and the lights would go out.
She wasn't the first female standup comedian, but she was certainly one of the hardest working, driven by a desperation that was all her own and yet epitomized old-school showbiz: No gig was too small or too far away.
In retrospect, her early routines, in the 1960s, about being an unmarried daughter of a Jewish mother seem tame. But Ms. Rivers kept up with changing mores with increasingly raunchy material. Without altering her style, she became just as fluid about venues. When she wore out her welcome on talk shows and comedy albums, she ventured into reality shows and red carpet catcalls. There was nothing she wouldn't do: 'Fashion Police,' hair loss infomercials, even a web chat show, ' In Bed With Joan.' And she still wrote jokes every night and traveled to stand-up gigs.
Her humor was harsh, but she had a disarming way of laughing at her own jokes. She became famous - and a gay idol - for catty, over-the-line jokes. Commenting on a 2013 celebrity event, she said of the model Heidi Klum, 'The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.' (When some groups complained that her comment was anti-Semitic, she retorted that the only people who had a right to complain were Nazis.)
Female comics today like Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman are not as self-deprecating as Ms. Rivers and other female pioneers who were considered freakish just for daring to do stand-up. Acceptance then meant accepting the role of self-hating clown.
Onstage, Ms. Rivers was her own best target, ransacking her deepest insecurities for a laugh: her looks, her sex appeal, her marriage and even, a few years after he died, her husband's suicide. She mocked aging and, most of all, her obsession with plastic surgery. In an interview on the occasion of her 80th birthday last year, Ms. Rivers said, 'I'm celebrating with my 80th face.'
She was the butt of her mother-daughter reality show, 'Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?' (on WE), a tongue-in-cheek look at an overbearing Jewish mother and her put-upon daughter, together in Malibu. Their adventures were as fabricated as their faces: Melissa hires a buxom Swedish au pair; Joan refers to her as 'The Hunchfront of Notre Dame.'
Through four seasons, Ms. Rivers and her daughter looked similarly, uncannily unnatural. It was never clear whether Melissa's face was a surgical homage to her mother or proof that Lamarck's theory about the inheritance of acquired traits was correct.
At 81, Ms. Rivers seemed to be losing it a bit of late, not just uninhibited but disinhibited. In July, she stormed out of a CNN interview because the anchor, Fredricka Whitfield, asked blunt and unimaginative questions (like whether Ms. Rivers was 'mean'). Ms. Rivers could easily have batted them away. Instead, she let loose a rare flare of indignation over having to explain herself after 50 years in the business. 'I don't want to hear this nonsense,' she told the anchor, whom she called Darlene. 'You are not the one to interview a person who does humor.'
She stumbled over the tripwire of Middle East politics, saying in an off-the-cuff interview that she didn't regret the civilian death toll in Gaza.
But then she was as quick and irreverent as ever in an August appearance on 'Late Night With Seth Meyers,' to promote her latest book, 'Diary of a Mad Diva.' She began by scoffing at Anne Frank and her famous diary.
'She's a best-selling author,' she said. 'One book. One book! I've written 12 books,' before adding: 'Did you ever read the book? There's no ending.'
A 2010 documentary, ' Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,' captured her comic gifts and also the neediness that even in the winter of her career drove her from comedy club to seedy hotel to airplane to comedy club. Begun in 2008, the film captured Ms. Rivers in a dry spell, when she was on tenterhooks waiting to see if she would be picked as a contestant on 'Celebrity Apprentice.' (She was, and won.)
Her face never showed her age. Her apartment did. In the film, she gave a tour of her vast Gilded Age penthouse overlooking Central Park. The ballroom, gold-leaf boiserie and French furniture fit for Versailles had an Old World grandeur that may be outmoded now, but certainly fit the aspirational fantasies of the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants born at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.
Fame and fortune were never enough, of course, and slowing down was out of the question.
When an interviewer asked her around her 80th birthday whether she planned to retire, there was no laughter in her voice as she replied, 'And do what?'
She gave her own epitaph before leaving the CNN interview, saying, 'I am put on earth to make people laugh.'