Joan Rivers is 80 years old today! Enjoy an excerpt from Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady by Tuezdae and Darryl Littleton in honor of her long and successful career.
As Johnny Carson’s go-to guest host, the raspy voiced comedienne who’d been plugging away since the ’60s was finally getting some serious attention. So much so that in 1986, the newly christened FOX network beckoned Rivers over to do her own late-night talk show.
Being a pioneer means sacrifice. Not only did Rivers’ show die a rancid death, after attempting to fire husband, Edgar Rosenberg (who was the producer), FOX ended up firing them both. Three months later, Rosenberg was found dead from an apparent suicide. Joan blamed FOX. Several years later, she found success on a daytime talk show. She also got daughter Melissa in on the act by co-hosting the E! Entertainment network’s Golden Globes pre-show and Academy Awards pre-show and ripping celebrities a new one.
“I like people that don’t really give a damn and just say whatever. Sometimes I wish I had balls like that, but I’m too scared to hurt people’s feelings.” —Nikki Carr
Joan Alexandra Molinsky from Brooklyn didn’t have time to care about other people’s feelings. She was too busy trying to get ahead. After graduating from Barnard College with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature and anthropology, she worked a number of diverse jobs: tour guide at Rockefeller Center, writer/ proofreader at an ad agency, and fashion consultant.
Rivers began her show biz career in the theater and New York comedy clubs and landed on The Tonight Show hosted by Jack Paar. She was a gag writer for Candid Camera, as well as a plant to sucker participants into doing wacky things. It was during the ’60s that she made her first foray into the talk-show format with a daytime talk show of her own. Her first guest was Johnny Carson. She also released two comedy albums during this decade.
The 1970s saw a Rivers expansion. She appeared on variety shows (The Carol Burnett Show), participated in children’s programming (The Electric Company), and did game shows (Hollywood Squares). She wrote the Stockard Channing movie comedy The Girl Most Likely To . . . and wrote and directed the Billy Crystal film Rabbit Test. She also introduced herself to Las Vegas audiences as singer Helen Reddy’s opening act.
By the ’80s, Rivers was headlining Vegas. She took her growing cache and wrote a bestselling humor book, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abramowitz. Her popularity was such that she found herself initiating a lawsuit against drag queen Frank Marino for doing her stand-up material as part of his impersonation of her. This was also the decade she became estranged from longtime friend and mentor Carson after jumping over to FOX and directly challenging him for viewers and precious ratings. Once that whirlwind of missteps and tragedy subsided, Joan stepped back into the daytime talk show arena with The Joan Rivers Show and got an Emmy and a five-year run for her efforts.
The only thing that was getting more attention than Joan Rivers’ own biting self deprecating wit was her multiple plastic surgeries. She’s never shied away from the fact that she’s had some work done, having popped up on three episodes of Nip/Tuck playing herself and as a vagina that’s had too much plastic surgery in the animated adult show Drawn Together.
The new millennium found business-savvy Rivers being omnipresent. She had an $8 million deal to do TV Guide’s red carpet show, leaving E! holding considerably less. She had a line of baubles called, what else, The Joan Rivers Collection being hawked on the QVC shopping network. She was one in only four Americans invited to Prince Charles’s wedding and won Donald Trump’s NBC reality show hit, The Celebrity Apprentice. Joan Rivers is no mere comedienne. She’s a comedy factory.
Comediennes: Laugh Be a Lady chronicles the evolution of the humor through the research of Darryl and Tuezdae Littleton and the scores of interviews they conducted with veteran female performers from all mediums, as well as Tuezdae’s own experiences as a comedienne. Startling facts are revealed and tributes are paid to the icons of yesteryear by the titans of today in their own words and sentiments.
Women have always made us laugh, from their outrageous characters, pratfall humor, cutting barbs, clever wit and unforgettable side-splitting moments. Their “herstory” has only just begun.