Labeling her "overrated," one critic smacked Joan Rivers with perhaps the ultimate insult: "Everything she says about herself is true." Elizabeth Taylor, after five years of taking it on the double chins, finally fought back: "The woman looks like a circus clown." And if Jerry Falwell, inexplicably, became a fan this year (he told her he "adores" her), most of the Moral Majority did not. After Rivers said "goddamn" and joked about herpes and AIDS on the Emmy Awards show, NBC received thousands of angry phone calls.

Still, Rivers doesn't take nearly as much as she dishes out. In her late 40s, she has become America's premier comedienne by raising insult to a controversial art form. Arguing "I'm really a very sensitive person; I only go after the ones who are big enough to take it," she abuses everyone: Bo Derek ("so dumb she studies for a Pap test"), Sophia Loren ("an old tramp from World War II.... I threw a Hershey bar into her dressing room and she laid down") and Willie Nelson ("he wears a Roach Motel around his neck").

Lately Rivers has even begun zapping stars a mere arm's length away on the Tonight Show, where she gives new meaning to the label cutup. She shocked Victoria Principal by insisting Principal was once engaged to Andy Gibb ("I saw that cheesy ring"), questioned the heterosexuality of Boy George and, by hinting that his marriage was in trouble, made Tony (Taxi) Danza look as if he wanted to punch her.

But if she risks driving potential guests away (Taylor and Richard Burton have refused to go on with her), viewers seem to have the opposite reaction. Her shows some nights outrate Carson's, which is why she was recently made his sole substitute (and could eventually succeed him). Her What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most is a hit LP and she is on the road performing before SRO crowds 40 weeks a year.

Rivers' rise signals nothing less than a wholesale change in the public's sense of humor. As she figures it, "I am telling the truth in a very angry age. People in this country don't like anyone anymore. And I succeed by saying what everyone else is thinking."

For Rivers recognition was a long time coming. She defied her upper-class Jewish parents to "starve" as a Greenwich Village comic before Carson discovered her, announcing on the air in 1965, "You're going to be a star." Now that she is, Rivers presides over a Beverly Hills "mini-Versailles," home to second husband Edgar Rosenberg, 53, daughter Melissa, 15, and a flock of servants. One of them recently took a call from Rivers' first husband, Bond's clothing store heir James Sanger whom she hasn't seen in more than 20 years. The message? "Tell Joan that I'm proud."