Joan Rivers never won the job of permanent host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” but she did something more important — she prospered in one of the toughest of businesses while still remaining true to her personal and comedic sense right up to Sept. 4, when she died at age 81.
One can well imagine Rivers rolling her eyes after reading such a line. Sentiment wasn’t her thing. Succeeding despite adversity was.
That’s one reason why so many — even young people — have been hit hard by her death.
“4 the first time in years I got down on my knees & prayed tonight! I encourage U 2 do the same 4 @Joan_Rivers my grandma! #inconsolable,” tweeted Kelly Osbourne, who co-starred with Rivers on E! Television’s “Fashion Police.”
Rivers’ funeral was held Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in New York City.
Those of us who were around long before there was an E! network remember Rivers paid an incredibly high personal price for what seemed a swift move up the comedy ladder.
It became especially difficult in 1986, when Johnny Carson — who previously had hand-chosen her as his successor for “The Tonight Show” — cut her out of his life. That happened after Rivers called him to report she was taking a late-night show of her own on Fox. The show fizzled after seven months, leaving Rivers in perhaps the worst professional moment of her life.
According to a 2012 article in The Hollywood Reporter, Ms. Rivers said she “adored Johnny,’ but wanted to follow Bill Cosby, David Brenner, George Carlin and other “Tonight Show’ guests who moved on to host their own show. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t understand, why is he mad?’ He was not angry at anybody else. I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his.’”
Rivers was her own person long before — and after — it was fashionable for women. When she began performing stand up in 1960s Greenwich Village, comedians were all “white, older men” — including Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny, she said. She was dismayed that women became singers or “a caricature,” such as an inept housewife.
“I had no idea what I was doing. The white men were doing ‘mother-in-law’ and ‘my wife’s so fat’ jokes. It was all interchangeable,” she said. “When I went onstage, that just didn’t feel right. So I just said, ‘Let me talk about my life.’”
Woody Allen and George Carlin, who were among her buddies, also talked about their lives in their routines.
“So I came in at the right moment I think it was Cosby who also said to me, ‘If only 2 percent of the world thinks you’re funny, you’ll still fill stadiums for the rest of your life.’”
Clearly, Mr. Cosby, who Rivers’ credited with providing the push to get her on “The Tonight Show” after she had auditioned and been rejected seven times, was right. Still, it was up to her to create her own opportunities.
Those of us who read the news that Rivers’ 1987 Fox television show was canceled after seven months likely remember thinking it was the end of her career.
It was much worse. Fox executives fired Rivers and her executive producer husband, Edgar Rosenberg, after she would not agree to replace him. Rosenberg committed suicide on May 15, 1987, three months after the cancellation of “The Late Show with Joan Rivers.”
When Rosenberg died, industry executives blackballed Rivers.
“My career was nowhere,” she told the TV Academy in a 2011 interview. “I could not get arrested.”
Call it the work ethic of the World War II generation or her own drive to succeed or even desperation, but Rivers didn’t give up on her career or her style of comedy.
She carried on with stand up, wrote books and plays, did a radio show, and appeared on hundreds of television shows from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” to “The Hollywood Squares,” from “Nip/Tuck” to “Celebrity Apprentice” — and even shopping channels such as QVC. She also won a daytime Emmy for her talk show “The Joan Rivers Show,” which ran from 1989 to 1993.
But her true career rebirth came in 1995, when she and daughter Melissa first hosted the pre-Academy Awards show for E! That led to a relationship with the network.
Her one-liners, jabs and spirit are what Melissa Rivers hopes we will recall when we think of her mother. “My mother’s greatest joy in life was to make people laugh,” she said. “Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon.”