Ten years ago, I could have rattled off the names of the four funniest people on the planet without taking a breath. Today, Jerry Lewis has been vanquished from the Telethon that bore his name, Albert Brooks can’t get arrested in Hollywood, Howard Stern is judging dog acts, and Joan Rivers is dead.
My earliest memory of Joan Rivers dates back to 1965 when she was working both sides of Allan Funt’s Candid Camera. That was the same year she made her first appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Almost fifty years have passed and I cannot recall a time when Joan Rivers wasn’t relevant.
Only two checks appear on the back of my Joan Rivers career report card. Rabbit Test, Joan’s one and only stint in the director’s chair, was an endurance test, an ill-conceived mess that starred Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man.
Then there’s the issue of the Johnny Carson "divorce." Rivers admits that it was Carson who helped make her a household name. "He believed in me more than I believed in me," Rivers told People in 1991. "Johnny was the one person who said, 'Yes, she has talent; yes, she is funny.' He was the first person in power who respected what I was doing and realized what I could become. He handed me my career."
He was her mentor, father figure, and staunchest promoter rolled into one Dacron polyester Johnny Carson suit. He deserved a phone call.
Rivers had guest-hosted for JC some 80 times before August 1983 when she became his designated replacement whenever the king of the night decided to take one of his multitudinous vacation days. Her hard work and killer material did not go unnoticed. Three years later the pubescent Fox Network offered Rivers a show of her own to air opposite Tonight.
She faltered big time by not being the one to tell Carson. One can hardly blame her for not wanting to be the personal bearer of adverse tidings to a misogynist known for his monster ego and alcohol-induced ill temper.
Word had hit Johnny’s desk by the time Rivers got around to dropping a dime. The receiver hit the cradle the instant he recognized her voice. It would be the last contact between the two. For a performer who claimed to have given Carson “unwavering loyalty,” who “never wanted to do anything to hurt that man," Rivers had an odd way of showing it. To the day she died, Rivers was never again invited to take a seat on The Tonight Show couch.
She was nothing if not a survivor. The Fox show failed. Rivers' husband committed suicide causing Howard Stern to famously proclaim, "Fox killed Edgar Rosenberg!" But Joan continued to reinvent herself carving her way through panel shows, comedy stages, and in her latest, and possibly most famous incarnation as the beater of red carpets (and those who tread upon them).
I last saw Joan perform in person a few years back when she brought her one-woman show to the North Park Theatre. In no time after storming the stage, Rivers had placed a comic chokehold on the audience that left us gasping for air. Joan Rivers was the hardest working woman in show business and one of its last honest comics. When you bought a ticket to one of her performances, Rivers was determined to get a laugh out of you even if it killed her.
Howard Stern-Joan Rivers interview
Joan had performed for an audience the night before undergoing what was thought to be minor throat surgery at a Manhattan clinic. Midway through the procedure Rivers stopped breathing and was taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital where she was put into a medically induced coma and later placed on life support. She was surrounded by friends and family members when she passed earlier today at the age of 81.
One can hear Joan now as the Pearly Gates swing wide and St. Peter comes down to greet her: “Can we talk, God?”