The American comedian and talk show host Joan Rivers (1933–2014) was a pioneer among women in entertainment, becoming the first woman to host a late-night television talk show. Brash and abrasive, Rivers adapted the outrageous comic style of her main inspiration, comedian Lenny Bruce, into material that discomfited audiences and, over her long career, almost always made them laugh.
Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, on June 8, 1933, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Odessa, in what is now Ukraine. The family of Rivers's mother, Beatrice Molinsky, had been well off and had procured furs for the Russian Czar. “She had a pathological fear of poverty,” Rivers was later quoted as saying by the London Daily Telegraph. “She spent her time talking about her childhood in Russia and forcing my father to pay for maids and governesses.” Rivers's father, Meyer Molinsky, grew up poor and worked as a neighborhood doctor in Brooklyn. The Molinsky family moved to suburban Larchmont, New York, and it was there that Rivers experienced both her mother's obsession with status and her own fears about being overweight. Later in life she would undergo a series of plastic surgeries.
Rivers's education was top-notch: she attended excellent private schools in New York (the Ethical Culture School and Adelphi Academy) and matriculated at Connecticut College, eventually transferring to Barnard University in Manhattan. She graduated in 1954 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, with a major in English literature and a wide knowledge of the classics. After college, Rivers held a variety of jobs, including advertising proofreader, Rockefeller Center tour guide, publicity assistant for the Lord & Taylor department store, and fashion buyer for the Bond clothing chain. Hoping to fulfill her mother's ambitions, she dumped a serious boyfriend, a poet, and married the son of that chain's owner. The marriage was annulled within six months when Rivers's husband revealed that he had no desire to have children.
In 1961 Rivers followed the path of many U.S. comedians and signed on with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. There she began to create material that drew directly on her unique experiences and romantic misadventures; after returning to New York City, she began to give that material a sharp edge. A formative experience was seeing a characteristically offensive performance by comic Lenny Bruce and deciding that such outrageousness might actually be healthy and liberating. Bruce in turn was impressed: after a Rivers performance that went unappreciated by the audience, he sent her a note that, as quoted by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker, read: “You're right and they're wrong.” Rivers put the note into her bra and often wore it there until her breakthrough to national celebrity.
That breakthrough came in 1965, when Rivers made her first appearance on late-night television's The Tonight Show with host Johnny Carson. The odds were against her: she had fared poorly in two appearances on the show with its previous host Jack Parr, and Carson was thought to dislike female comedians. Her rapport with Carson was immediate, however, and she won over the audience with routines about her mother's matchmaking efforts and about a driver who ran over her wig on a New York freeway and thought that he had killed her dog. According to Nussbaum, Carson laughed uproariously and said, “God, you're funny. You're going to be a star.”
The prediction proved correct. Rivers graduated from Borscht Belt venues to top nightclubs in major cities, and by the mid-1970s she was a regular guest on The Tonight Show. She married producer Edgar Rosenberg, to whom Carson had introduced her, and the couple had a daughter, Melissa Rivers, in 1968. Increasingly often, Rivers filled in for Carson as host, and in 1983 she was designated the show's permanent guest host, becoming the first woman to hold such a position. As early as 1969, she hosted her own daytime talk show, That Show with Joan Rivers, and was a frequent guest on other popular programs, including The Carol Burnett Show and the comedy/game show hybrid Hollywood Squares.
Often working with Rosenberg, Rivers undertook a variety of projects beyond television. She ventured onto Broadway with the play Fun City, a 1971 comedy she both wrote and starred in. More favorably received was her performance in a 1986 production of Neil Simon's Broad-way Bound. The 1973 made-for-television comedy The Girl Most Likely To, written by Rivers and starring Stockard Channing as a rejected fat girl who embarks on a revenge spree, mined her own psychological territory and was regarded as one of the most successful television films of its day. A prolific writer, Rivers issued the humorous instructional manual Having a Baby Can Be a Scream (1974) and the novel The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz, a humorous fictionalized memoir. Rivers's autobiography Enter Talking (1986) was successful enough to support a sequel, Still Talking, in 1991. The titles of those books were derived from her trademark line “Can we talk?,” which she used in her comedy routines.
Rivers's dream of a late-night talk show of her own came true in 1986, when the new Fox television network offered her $10 million to leave Tonight and host the new The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, which had a starting time half an hour earlier than Tonight. Because Rivers negotiated with Fox in secret, Carson felt betrayed and never spoke to her again. Thus began an unofficial Rivers Tonight ban that would lasted for almost three decades. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers started strongly, but ratings slumped after several months. The show ran into more trouble when the network fired Rosenberg, causing its relationship with Rivers to deteriorate after she tried to defend her husband. The show was canceled in 1987, but Rivers, as usual, bounced back. Her daytime talk show The Joan Rivers Show earned her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1990, during the second season of its five-year run.
Rivers remained busy even in the later stages of her career. In 1994 she wrote and starred in her second play, Sally Marr and Her Escorts, earning a Tony Award nomination as Best Actress in a Play. Her product line, the Joan Rivers Classics Collection, launched in 1990 and was marketed through the QVC cable television shopping network, where it attracted a loyal clientele under the direction of Rivers's daughter, Melissa Rivers. Rivers remained highly visible on television, hosting the E! network show Live from the Red Carpet from 1996 to 2004, as well as the more recent Fashion Police, which she hosted until shortly before her death. In 2010 she had a starring role in the reality television program Celebrity Apprentice, and the following year she provided voice talent on the animated television series The Simpsons. Turning to film, Rivers contributed the voice of the Red Carpet Announcer to the 2004 animated film Shrek 2.
Perhaps the most durably successful of Rivers's later endeavors was the autobiographical theater piece Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, which she cowrote for herself as star. The play gathered momentum after its opening in San Francisco in 2007, and was eventually staged during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland and on London's West End. Despite her busy schedule, Rivers found time to write a total of 12 books, including the 2009 mystery novel Murder at the Academy Awards: A Red Carpet Murder Mystery and the humorous volumes I Hate Everyone … Starting with Me (2012) and Diary of a Mad Diva (2014).
Rivers remained active into her 80s, starring with Melissa Rivers in the reality television series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? and continuing to schedule stand-up comedy shows. Heading into the late summer of 2014, she had seven shows scheduled. She entered a clinic for what was planned to be routine outpatient throat surgery, but during the procedure, she went into cardiac arrest and never fully recovered. Then age 81, Rivers, who was estimated to be worth $150 million, died in New York City, on September 4, 2014. The eulogy at her funeral was delivered by shock radio host Howard Stern.
Bennetts, Leslie, Last Girl before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers, Little, Brown, 2016.
Rivers, Joan, Enter Talking, Dell, 1986.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 5, 2014, p. 29.
Independent (London, England), September 5, 2014, p. 52.
New Yorker, February 23, 2015, p. 166.
New York Times, September 5, 2014, p. A1.
Women's Wear Daily, September 5, 2014, p. 18.