If there was a first lady of stand-up comedy, no one would argue about Joan Rivers’ claim to the title.
The legendary comedienne died Thursday after she went into cardiac arrest during a vocal cord procedure a week ago at a New York City clinic. She was 81.
Rivers became the first female comedian to break through the all-male stranglehold of stand-up comedy in the 1950’s and 1960’s, which led her to numerous appearances and a guest-hosting stint on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and to her own late-night, daytime, and cable programs.
Born as Joan Alexander Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, Rivers honed her skills in comedy clubs in Greenwich Village area of New York and also briefly was a member of Second City here in Chicago. Her first TV appearance came on The Tonight Show (with Jack Paar.) Rivers first appeared on Carson’s Tonight Show in 1965, and also appeared on Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett’s shows.
She worked behind-the-scenes, too: she was a gag writer on Candid Camera, did voiceover work for The Adventures Of Letterman segments on The Electric Company; wrote the 1973 TV-movie The Girl Most Likely To… which starred Stockard Channing; and also wrote the 1978 theatrical Rabbit Test, featuring Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man.
In 1983, Rivers assumed full-time responsibilities as Carson’s guest host whenever he was on vacation (which was a lot.)
In 1986, Rivers departed Tonight for the upstart Fox network’s new late-night strip, The Late Show. It was the first show on the new fourth network on October 9, 1986. The Late Show was punctuated with a lot of turmoil between Rivers and Fox, as documented in Daniel Kimmel’s book The Fourth Network: How Fox Broke The Rules And Reinvented Television. Rivers left The Late Show in 1987; her husband Edgar (who produced the show), committed suicide shortly thereafter.
Rivers’ relationship with Carson crumbled after she left; the two would never speak again. She would not return to the Tonight Show until this past March, a month after Jimmy Fallon took over as host.
After two uneventful years as the center square on the John Davidson-hosted version of Hollywood Squares, Rivers returned to the talk show circuit in September 1989 with The Joan Rivers Show, a light-hearted daytime talk show host distributed by the now-defunct Tribune Entertainment. Rivers won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1990.
Known for “Gossip! Gossip! Gossip!“, Rivers’ daytime show competed with Live With Regis & Kathie Lee in many key markets, sparking a rivalry between the two New York-based shows.
With ratings declining, Tribune and Rivers pulled the plug in late 1993, reformatted the show, and became Can We Shop? in 1994, combining talk with home shopping, with local stations sharing in any revenues from products sold on the program. The effort was a disaster, and lasted just six months.
In 1994, Rivers and her daughter Melissa began hosting pre-show Red Carpet events for E!, including the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The duo moved their pre-show duties to the fledgling TV Guide Channel in 2003; but returned to E! in 2010 to work on Fashion Police, with elder Rivers as a panelist and her daughter as an executive producer.
Other appearances Joan Rivers made in recent years included a memorable role on Celebrity Apprentice, where she beat poker player Annie Duke, sparking a huge rivalry between the two; appearing with Melissa in WeTV reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?; and appearing as herself on Louie.
Rivers recently appeared in a commercial for Dodge, poking fun at herself and her numerous “plastic surgeries”. Of course, she was also known for those “can we talk” ads for MCI.
In later years, Rivers became more and more frank with her comedy – she would say things which would be considered “un-PC”. She often stood her ground, refusing to apologize for anything she said. She recently made news for storming out of a CNN interview.
Whether if she made you laugh – or made you cringe – Joan Rivers certainly made an impact on comedy. She never took herself seriously – and maybe, neither should we. And that’s what made her so great.
As a bonus, here’s a promo for her daytime talk show, as it aired on NBC affiliate (now CBS-owned) WBZ-TV in Boston in August 1989: