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Late-night talk hosts deliver heartfelt tributes to Joan Rivers

Comedian Joan Rivers speaks to reporters at the awards ceremony for the 11th Annual Mark Twain Prize on November 10, 2008 in Washington, DC.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The biggest names of late-night television each paid homage to Joan Rivers yesterday.

Fittingly, one of the most moving tributes occurred on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, whose host fought back tears while talking about the comedy legend who passed away Thursday at age 81.

Rivers kicked off her TV career on The Tonight Show in 1965 and routinely guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on dozens of occasions. Carson, however, famously banned Rivers from the show when she chose to host a rival late-night talker on the Fox Network in 1986.

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And Carson's no-Rivers edict was upheld by subsequent Tonight Show hosts Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, but when Fallon took over the reins last February, Rivers showed up to give him a kiss and wish him good luck.

"It was really emotional and really nice," said an emotional Fallon. "I don't want to show a clip because I don't think it will do her justice."

Fallon also encouraged his viewers to watch the acclaimed 2010 bio-documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and added, "We loved her. We will definitely miss her."

There was no less reverence for Rivers on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where the normally wisecracking host took a rare serious moment to talk about her contributions to the comedy world.

"Besides being a pioneer for women in comedy – for everyone in comedy – she was a very lucky person," said Kimmel. "Because Joan loved her job so much, she never wanted to stop. And she didn't have to stop because she was so great at it."

Kimmel showed a clip from Rivers' last appearance on his show last year, in which she delivered several zingers about her daughter and grandson. "She was something else," said Kimmel.

Kimmel's opening guest last night was comic actress Sarah Silverman, who spoke admiringly of Rivers: "She loved with her whole heart and she also hated with her whole heart, which I loved."

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Over on The Late Show, David Letterman took note of Rivers' unique comedy style and her penchant for taking shots at topics (and often people) most comedians wouldn't dare tackle.

"Talk about guts," said Letterman. "She would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable, just where you would have to swallow pretty hard, but it was hilarious. And she stood behind her jokes and to my knowledge, would say these things and never apologize because she always felt, 'Hey, I'm a comedian. These are jokes'."

Meanwhile on the TBS talk show Conan, host Conan O'Brien fondly recalled the seventies era when Rivers would substitute for Carson on The Tonight Show.

"When she did, it was an event," said O'Brien. "Everybody in the country would talk about it the next day. Media is so fractured now. There's so many thousands of different shows and everybody competing for attention. It's hard to explain what an event that was."

On Late Night with Seth Meyers – where Rivers was a guest less than three weeks earlier – Meyers marvelled at the late comedian's work ethic ("she wrote every day") and expressed regret that she wouldn't appear on his show again.

"I wish she were here right now," said Meyers. "Because if she were here right now, she would make a joke about how she just passed away. And she would get away with it, because it would be really funny."

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And the shortest – possibly the sweetest – tribute took place on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, with the Scottish-born host honouring Rivers in the most appropriate manner imaginable: With a joke.

"We lost Joan Rivers today, one of the all-time greats," said Ferguson. "Yes, I know. It's terribly sad. I just hope that when Joan meets the man upstairs, he is wearing something she can insult."

Rimshot, please.

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