Larry Busacca/Getty
Kelli Bender
September 04, 2014 04:50 PM

The world lost an unforgettable comedian last year, when Joan Rivers passed away at the age of 81.

“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,” Rivers’s daughter Melissa said in a statement regarding her mother’s death obtained by PEOPLE.

Making people laugh was never a problem for the comedian, who started on the nightclub circuit in the 1960s. Through her decades of entertaining on stage and screen, Rivers developed numerous classic bits and catchphrases, but three small words stand above the rest: “Can we talk?”

This simple phrase helped propel Rivers to national stardom – without her even realizing it. As she explains in the interview above, the catchphrase naturally slipped into her stripped-down comedy routine, and soon enough, fans were repeating it back to her.

“Rodney Dangerfield figured out ‘I can’t get no respect,'” Rivers explains in the clip above. “And he said to me, ‘Can we talk?’ And I was like, ‘What? Can we talk?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you use that phrase.’ ”

Dangerfield wasn’t the only one to notice. “Can we talk?” quickly became a Rivers signature question, and the catchphrase took on a life of its own. See below how this simple question and its iterations helped Rivers grow into the legendary comedian we remember today.

As the phrase grew in popularity, so did the reactions from the crowd. By the 1980s, a mention of “Can we talk?” in Rivers’s monologue was met with excited applause, such as this 1984 clip from one of Rivers’s numerous Tonight Show appearances.

“Can we talk?” grew into an official TV presence when Rivers was given her own talk show in 1986 named for the famous line.

The “Can we talk?” craze didn’t stop there. Rivers’s rep for being a big gabber helped her land a commercial deal with telecommunication company MCl that lasted throughout the ’80s.

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