As with many other famed performers, Joan Rivers was the opposite of the public person she raucously portrayed. Crass on stage, she was elegant in private with a kindly, understated presence. Shallow in her stage comments, she was well read and thoughtful in real life.
By the mid-1980s, Rivers seemed to have succeeded in all her ambitious goals – as a standup, TV entertainer, actress and writer. She’d been named permanent guest host of “The Tonight Show” and enjoyed a close relationship with Johnny Carson. She even won her own nighttime show in competition with Carson on the new Fox network.
The new show was to prove a disaster for her career and personal life. Carson claimed Rivers had never confided in him that she planned to become a rival, which Rivers did not deny. He never spoke to her again. The new show at Fox was a debacle and both she and her husband, Edgar, were fired. A few months later Edgar, utterly dispirited, committed suicide.
I’d been a good friend of Edgar Rosenberg before their 1965 marriage and I had quickly bonded with Joan. Edgar had built a solid career in public relations. Their marriage was warm and successful on a personal and business level. They acquired a large, elegant home in Bel Air and entertained a wide circle of friends in theater and film. As Joan’s career spiraled upward, it consumed more and more of Edgar’s time and professional attention. The Joan and Edgar show had gone big-time beyond their wildest expectations.
SEE ALSO: Her Life and Career in Pictures
During my years as a film executive, Joan conferred with me often about movie and TV ideas. The failure of “Rabbit Test,” which she wrote and directed (it starred Billy Crystal) frustrated her and she was determined to make directing a successful side career, developing script after script with that aim. With all the rest that was going on in her life, I never understood her zeal for film but she had decided she would be the next Mike Nichols and that I would help get her there.
From time to time, I would go backstage with Joan before her Vegas shows and we would confer about a new script or other project. She had an encyclopedic mastery of her joke catalog and, whenever a scene didn’t work, she would instantly summon up a better line. Once she said, in frustration, “My jokes are messing up my scripts, aren’t they? Why don’t I save the jokes for my standup and try to write better scripts?”
Her self-criticism carried over to all of her work. Nothing was ever sharp enough for her. After the setbacks of the late ‘80s, Rivers retired to the sidelines for a time, then resumed her career with more vigor than ever. As she told me, “I will prove that I can be funny even when I have no right to still be funny.” And her career was to soar again.
In fact, she had no intention to ever retire. “I just want to implode some day – that would be my fate.” It was a good forecast.