I first encountered Joan Rivers as a guest on Hollywood Squares, the ’80s revival, where she was one of the top panelists (as she had been in the original version). Like a lot of stars on panel shows, you took it on faith that she was a star; you didn’t know, and weren’t supposed to know, what they had done before they were doing game shows. That’s how a lot of people got introduced to Joan Rivers, even after the era of panel shows was mostly over: as a professional celebrity, someone who was worthy to stand with the stars, be familiar with them, make fun of them, but wasn’t necessarily famous for doing anything.
It took me a long time to find out just how unfair that was to Rivers, but the first time I found it out was when I found the 1973 TV movie The Girl Most Likely To… starring Stockard Channing. First of all, I was surprised that Rivers was writing it and not starring in it, since I only knew of her as a TV personality. But the movie itself was surprising too: most TV movies were, and are, cheesy and uplifting, but this was a very dark comedy about an ugly young woman who undergoes plastic surgery to turn her into a beauty, and then decides to use her newfound looks as a weapon to help her murder every person who ever treated her bad.
A strange combination of comedy and revenge fantasy, The Girl Most Likely To… not only was like no other TV movie, but it showed how Rivers’s stock comedy themes — plastic surgery, a love/hate relationship with conventional ideas about good looks — could be turned to a more serious comic purpose. That was the first time I looked beyond the Hollywood Squares personality, the professional celebrity, and realized there was a career there, a point of view, a style.
Later on I found out, as you’ll be reading in many of the obituaries, that Rivers was a pioneer in comedy. And when applied to a woman who started her comedy career in the ’50s, that really means something: some people still say “women aren’t funny” now, so imagine what they were saying then. (There was a sketch on the Steve Allen Show once that imagined what a female stand-up comedian would be like, showing her declaiming Henny Youngman one-liners in a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice.) Back then there was mostly her and Phyllis Diller, and while they shared some things in common — including self-deprecating jokes about how different they were from conventional expectations — Rivers had more of a hip edge to her work.
Her big career break came in 1965, after she’d been trying to break into the big time for a long time. That year, she wrote later, she was a “31-year-old grovelling outcast who had been struggling through mud up to my waist to break into show business, going through humiliations nobody should have to endure.” She credited Johnny Carson with being the first person to give her a real break and give her a call: “He was the first person in power who respected what I was doing and realized what I could become. He gave me my career.” After her first of many Tonight Show appearances in 1965, her career built slowly and steadily until the early ’80s, when she hit her peak of popularity: when she filled in for Carson as host, her ratings were supposedly higher than his.
She worked very hard on her material, paying close attention to what her audiences wanted. She was a crowd-pleaser, and if something didn’t interest her audience, she dropped it. Interviewed by Life Magazine in 1971, she explained that she wrote a lot of material about the feminist movement, but cut it from her act because her largely female audience didn’t care about the subject: “[Feminism is] six loud ladies in New York yelling and getting on the cover of Time magazine. The rest of the country simply isn’t interested.” But though she wasn’t out to challenge her audience, she had been deeply influenced by Lenny Bruce’s revolution in personal comedy, in making the material about you (or at least, the version of you that you present onstage). “Audiences today want to know their comedian. Can you please tell me one thing about Bob Hope? I mean, if you only listened to his material, would you know the man, could you tell for one second what he is all about? His comedy is another America, an America that is not going to come back.”
Dorothy Storck, writing for Knight-Ridder in 1983, said she had a friend who had no interest in stand-up comedy but always tuned in when Rivers was on TV: “She’s so bitchy,” Storck’s friend said. “She’ll say anything.” Carson and most other TV hosts made mostly gentle fun of celebrities; they were all part of the same club, and the members of the club kidded each other because they loved each other. Rivers, not part of that club, didn’t talk about celebrities as if they were her friends, even the ones who actually were. She was known for being vicious, onscreen and sometimes off; Andy Gibb claimed that when they met on a plane to a telethon in Montreal, she continued to insult him all the way to Canada, and he refused to show up for rehearsals while she was there. But if celebrities sometimes got offended by what she said, so much the better for her popularity; it proved that this wasn’t just a cute volley of insults between pals, that she was really on our side and not a pal of these rich, self-important stars.
It may not be a coincidence that Rivers’s career really took off at a time when modern celebrity-driven journalism and culture was also taking off, thanks to publications like People magazine. Celebrities became much more a part of our daily lives, but also more demystified. So we were at once sick of hearing so much about them, and eager to hear all about what they were doing to their lives, their bodies, and their romantic partners. Rivers was our stand-in there; she, or at least her comic persona, shared our simultaneous worship and resentment of stars. Like Channing’s character in The Girl Most Likely To… she wanted to be one of those people and she also wanted to kill them.
It wasn’t only celebrities who were made uneasy by her act at times. Storck noted how many of her jokes were about women’s looks, either her own or other women’s (“The Queen’s a schlep! If you rule England, Ireland, Scotland and Canada, shave your legs!”) and how she “lacerates a female glamour symbol who won’t or can’t sue.” But Storck also admitted that Rivers’s jokes were shining a light on a “savage truth” about the way women were treated, and the expectations for women to look a certain way. When she urged women to “get married, get the ring, then you can let your thighs go condo,” you could interpret it as her making fun of ideas about conventional ideas about women, or agreeing with them, or a bit of both.
Rivers probably should have been an even bigger star than she was, and might have been if it hadn’t been for conventional ideas about women in comedy — ideas that are still conventional today. After she torpedoed her relationship with Carson by starting her own competing talk show on the fledgling Fox network (its very first show), she went to the pages of — where else? — People magazine to explain that the reason she left The Tonight Show is that NBC was not treating her well: her contract as guest host was renewed for only one year after Carson signed a two-year extension, NBC never offered her other projects, and she claimed that she saw NBC’s list of possible Carson successors and her name wasn’t on it. That suggested to her that she didn’t have much of a future with NBC, and that NBC didn’t take her seriously.
It was a common problem for her. As she wrote in that article, despite her success and popularity, “the industry does not take me seriously.” The public liked her, she said. The public went to see her shows and bought her books. But the show business world, the world of mean guys and girls who made fun of Stockard Channing, just considered her “a Las Vegas comic who fills in when Johnny’s not there—and they confuse me with my stage persona, a gossipy, brassy, raucous, mouthy woman. They do not seem to realize she has nothing to do with real life, that she is only an act that sells. Perhaps if the Fox show succeeds,” she continued, “I can achieve my ambition: to be accepted as a peer in this tough town of peers.”
The Fox show did not succeed, and she was fired after eight months. Her husband and producer on the show, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide soon after, and Rivers felt that Fox had helped bring it on by its treatment of him. Carson, in the grand show-biz tradition of never letting anything go and never forgiving anyone, refused to talk to her and hung up when she called. This was the Joan Rivers I saw on The New Hollywood Squares in the late 1980s, and I didn’t know or understand what she had been through. I didn’t understand how successful she had been, or that her success was built on a shaky foundation because the people in charge didn’t believe in her. I didn’t understand what you have to go through when you’re a woman in show business. I still don’t understand, mind you, but at least now I understand that I didn’t understand.
Today, there still hasn’t been a woman as the regular host of The Tonight Show, or any of the more successful broadcast network competitors that followed Rivers’s short-lived show. Thirty years have gone by, and with the possible exception of Rivers’s E! colleague Chelsea Handler, no woman in late-night comedy has risen as high as Rivers did when she was The Tonight Show‘s permanent guest host — and that position, as she found out, wasn’t very secure. Her death will get a lot of people talking about women in comedy. The good thing is that because of Rivers, we know that “women aren’t funny” is a lie, that a woman talk-show host is not just “the woman talk-show host” but simply a host, with her own style and personality. The bad thing is that not much has changed since then, and some things may even have gone backwards a little. As Storck observed when talking about the differences between Diller’s ’60s material and Rivers’s ’80s jokes: “Much may have changed in that time; obviously much has remained the same.”