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.
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.
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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.