She’s known as a Hollywood trailblazer, expanding what audiences and the women inspired by her legacy thought was possible from a successful female comic. And like most artistic innovators, the late Joan Rivers’ ascent was due to a combination of incredible talent and a touch of luck surrounding her big break.
She performed in comedy clubs across New York throughout the early ’60s. She appeared on the Jack Paar edition of The Tonight Show at the beginning of the decade. But her stand-up spots on The Ed Sullivan Show played a big role in her mainstream breakthrough. For all the work Rivers was doing as a comedian, she received her place on the platform because of an error by Sullivan.
Ed Sullivan’s slip of the tongue gave Joan Rivers her big break on his talk show
Rivers’ first job on The Ed Sullivan Show was as a writer. Her job was to help put together sketches for an Italian mouse puppet Topo Gigio. Topo became a big hit, starring in his own feature film and an Italian TV show. But Sullivan felt that writing for the doll was beneath him.
“I lay on the floor and wrote a sketch about this comic Italian puppet mouse, with a little Italian accent, who had become a semi-fad in America. I had him asking Ed Sullivan to explain football,” Rivers said (via the official Ed Sullivan Show website). “Topo Gigio paid my car payments for six months. God bless that little lousy mouse.”
But her first gig didn’t come from her well-crafted jokes. In reality, Sullivan got his names mixed up. The host was supposed to announce the performance of singer Johnny Rivers on an upcoming broadcast, but Sullivan said Joan’s name instead. Since she was already teased as the guest, Rivers and her agents were able to negotiate a better payday as well.
Joan Rivers became a favorite repeat guest for years
Joan Rivers made the most of her big break. Her observations and jokes about vapid beautiful people were a hit with the audience and went on to make 20 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, including one in 1968 while she was nine months pregnant with her daughter, Melissa Rivers.
Over time, Rivers and her second husband/manager Edgar Rosenberg became very close friends with Sullivan and his wife Sylvia, to the point that when Melissa was born, the Sullivans became her godparents.
Rivers’ relationship with the host didn’t make performing on live television a stress-free experience for her. Comedians had to adhere to a specific timespan and if they went off-script at all, they wouldn’t be asked back. Variety recounted a story Rivers told about doing her act in front of Sullivan at his home.
“He would sit behind his desk and you would do your whole act for Ed Sullivan. It was a nightmare. And then they didn’t want me to bother to do it anymore because I was on so much, but I was superstitious,” she said. “As long as I did the show, I would go up a few days before Sunday and stand in front of his desk and just do the whole act for him. It was amazing.”
Rivers’ last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was on November 29th, 1970, performing stand-up and acting in a sketch with Norm Crosby as a housewife attempting to seduce a grocery delivery man.
Rivers’ tone got her in trouble at times, but her willingness to go after big-name celebrities and ability to find the comedy in more serious topics made her a star for decades.
She found her style after performing at The Second City in Chicago. Rivers was a tough-talking satirist who had no problem angering famous subjects in her material. Edginess was fundamental to her success. She was the first woman to host a late-night network television talk show The Late Show with Joan Rivers and won a Daytime Emmy with her follow-up program The Joan Rivers Show.
In the 90s, Rivers became more known for her sharp barbs on the red carpet about the fashion faux pas of stars, often delivered right to their faces. She also had a lucrative business selling jewelry and clothes on QVC and made two shows with Melissa: Fashion Police and Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?.
Rivers died in 2014 following complications from a minor throat surgery. Melissa sued the doctors for malpractice, settling for an undisclosed amount in 2016.