Joan Rivers Paved the Way for Raunchy Female Comedians

Comedian-TV host carefully crafted her edgy brand early on in career

Joan Rivers understood the importance of branding long before it was a showbiz buzzword.

Her career outlasted so many of her contemporaries, male and female, from the 1960s nightclub arena, because she was adept at marketing herself and reinventing her signature material to stay relevant for the times. Indeed, Rivers worked steadily until just a few days before her death on Sept. 4 after suffering a cardiac arrest the week before while undergoing vocal chord surgery — in addition to her work on E’s “Fashion Police,” she had at least seven live performances scheduled for the fall.

SEE ALSO: Joan Rivers, Comedy and TV Pioneer, Dies at 81

At the start, with her frequent appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” in the mid-1960s, Rivers was the desperate single girl hunting for a husband. When that schtick grew dated amid changing times, she went for saucier material commenting frequently on the battle of the sexes.

By the early 1980s, she was known for disemboweling celebrities, going for the jokes that others wouldn’t dare tell in public about Elizabeth Taylor’s girth or Barbra Streisand’s nose, to name a few. She survived her famous falling out with Johnny Carson, her short-lived Fox latenight talkshow and even the suicide of her manager-husband Edgar Rosenberg through her refusal to let it permanently damage the persona that the two had carefully honed.

In the 1990s, Rivers’ expertly leveraged the explosion in celebrity media coverage with her trademark red carpet routine rooted in trashing the fashion choices of preening stars — often to their faces. It changed the tone of red-carpet coverage from genial meet-and-greets to more pointed commentary on gowns and tuxes. She made her own efforts to defy the gravity of her years — her many trips to plastic surgeons — part of her act. No matter the program, if Joan Rivers was hosting or guesting, viewers knew what to expect.

SEE ALSO: Joan Rivers: Her Final Controversy

Rivers’ indefatigable approach to work was forged during her early years on the circuit playing nightclubs, bars, strip clubs — any place where there was an opening for a woman trying to make it in a decidedly male-dominated profession. Early on, she famously landed an appearance on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” in 1960 but was never asked back until 1965, after Carson took over. That was the same year she met and married Rosenberg, who was an established TV producer before devoting himself to managing Rivers’ career.

On “Ed Sullivan,” Rivers first worked as a writer, turning out material for Topo Gigio, the show’s popular puppet mouse. Whether true or not, legend has it that Rivers landed her first appearance on the top-rated CBS variety show in May 1966 when Sullivan misspoke on the previous week’s show — he meant to tease the appearance of singer Johnny Rivers but said “Joan Rivers” instead.

Rivers went on to log 20 “Sullivan Show” appearances, including one in 1968 when she was nine months pregnant with daughter and future sidekick Melissa. Rivers and Rosenberg became close friends with Sullivan and his wife, Sylvia — so much so that the Sullivans were godparents to Melissa.

Phyliss Diller was a 1950s forerunner for female comics. Totie Fields, a contemporary of Rivers’, also had 20 appearances through the end of “Ed Sullivan’s” run in 1971. But Fields’ fat jokes (about herself) could only go so far. Joan Rivers, like the man-hungry single girl at the center of her formative routines, had the gift of fearless ambition.

More TV

  • Joseph Mawle

    'Lord of the Rings' Series at Amazon Casts 'Game of Thrones' Alum Joseph Mawle

    Amazon’s upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series has cast Joseph Mawle in a main role, Variety has confirmed with sources. Mawle joins previously announced cast members Will Poulter and Markella Kavenagh. Official details of Mawle’s characters are being kept under wraps, but sources say he will play a villain named Oren. Amazon declined to comment. Reps [...]

  • TV News Roundup: Jacob Tobia Joins

    TV News Roundup: Jacob Tobia Joins 'She-Ra and the Princess of Power'

    In today’s TV news roundup, “She-Ra and the Princess of Power” Season 4 adds Jacob Tobia, and The Weather Channel announces the premiere date for its climate change special with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.  CASTING Jacob Tobia has joined Netflix‘s “She-Ra and the Princess of Power.” Voicing Double Trouble, Tobia joins Aimee Carrero, Karen Fukuhara, [...]

  • TV Ratings: 'Watchmen' Premiere Draws 1.5

    TV Ratings: 'Watchmen' Premiere Draws 1.5 Million Viewers

    Who will watch the Watchmen? Turns out 1.5 million people, that’s who. The debut of the highly anticipated HBO series delivered that many sets of eyeballs across all the premium cabler’s platforms on Sunday night. For comparison, Sunday’s premiere was up 21% in linear on last week’s “Succession” season finale, and up 20% from the [...]

  • Variety Sundance Portrait Studio

    Melanie Lynskey Joins Showtime Pilot 'Yellowjackets' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Melanie Lynskey has been cast in one of the main roles of the Showtime ensemble drama pilot “Yellowjackets,” Variety has learned exclusively. The project tells the story of a team of talented high school girls soccer players who survive a plane crash deep in the Ontario wilderness. The series chronicles their descent from a complicated [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Boosting Efforts in Project Development Amid Agency Standoff

    The Writers Guild of America, locked in a six-month standoff with major talent agencies, has announced that it’s boosting efforts at gathering TV, streaming and film project development data to help members find new employment opportunities. The WGA made the disclosure in a message to members on Monday. The guild directed its 15,000 members to fire [...]

  • Amy Poehler Jessica Goldberg

    Amy Poehler, Jessica Goldberg Team for 'The Mother-in-Law' Put Pilot at NBC

    Jessica Goldberg is set to write a drama with a put pilot order at NBC that Amy Poehler will executive produce. The project is titled “The Mother-in-Law,” based on the novel of the same name by Sally Hepworth. It is described as a thriller centered around a woman’s complicated relationship with her husband’s family that [...]

  • Beau Willimon Hulu The First

    Beau Willimon, Katie Cappiello to Produce 'Slut' Series Adaptation at Netflix

    Playwright Katie Cappiello is teaming with “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon to bring an adaptation of her 2013 play “Slut” to the small screen. The show, titled “Grand Army,” is set up at Netflix with Odessa A’zion set to lead the cast. “Grand Army” follows five students at the largest public high school in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content