Comedian, writer, actress, and television show host
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, June 8, 1933, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Meyer C. (a physician) and Beatrice Molinsky; married James Sanger (an heir to a department store fortune), 1957 (annulled, 1958); married Edgar Rosenberg (a manager, executive, and producer), 1964 (committed suicide, August 14, 1987); children: Melissa (from second marriage). Education: Attended Connecticut College for Women; Barnard College, B.A. (English and anthropology), 1954.
Addresses: Agent—William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Office—c/o QVC, 1200 Wilson Dr. at Studio Park, Westchester, PA 19380. Website—http://www.joanrivers.com.
Worked as fashion coordinator for Bond Clothing Store and as publicist in New York department store Lord & Taylor, 1950s; actress in Off Broadway plays; worked as a comedian touring United States, billed as Pepper January; appeared with Second City improvisational troupe, 1961-62; wrote for television show Candid Camera; first appearance on The Tonight Show, NBC, 1965; released album Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories, Warner Bros., 1965; first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1966; continued to tour as a comedian, 1960s-1970s; had own talk show, That Show Starring Joan Rivers, 1968; made big-screen debut in The Swimmer, 1968; wrote and starred in Broadway play, Fun City, 1972; co-wrote television movie, The Girl Most Likely To ..., ABC, 1973; wrote syndicated column for Chicago Tribune; wrote and directed feature film Rabbit Test, 1977; co-creator of television series Husbands, Wives, and Lovers, CBS, 1978; worked as substitute host for The Tonight Show, through early 1980s; signed contract to be permanent co-host for Carson on The Tonight Show, 1983; released album What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most, Geffen, 1983; appeared as guest host, Saturday Night Live, NBC; signed to be host of The Late Show, FOX, 1985; center square on Hollywood Squares game show, 1987; had role in Broadway Bound, 1988; had own daytime talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, 1988-93; had talk show Joan Rivers' Gossip! Gossip! Gossip!, USA, 1992-93; sold line of jewelry on QVC home shopping network, 1992—; had talk show Can We Shop?, syndicated, 1994; co-wrote the stage show Sally Marr and Her Escorts, 1994; co-wrote and appeared in Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, NBC, 1994; hostess of pre-award show programs for E! Entertainment Television, 1995-2004; made guest appearances on Another World, NBC, 1997; radio talk-show host, WOR, 1997-2002; performed Broke and Alone in London (solo show), West End, London, 2002; guest appearance on Nip/Tuck, F/X, 2004; provided voice for animated film Shrek 2, 2004; host of pre-award show programs for TV Guide Channel, 2004—.
Awards: Georgie Award for best comedian, American Guild of Variety Artists, 1975; Clio Awards, best performance in a TV commercial, 1976, 1982; Daytime Emmy Award for best talk show host, for The Joan Rivers Show, 1990; Marymount Manhattan College, honorary doctorate, 1996.
In the early 2000s, Joan Rivers was best known for her work as a red carpet fashion commentator for the Academy Awards, Emmys, and other major awards shows. However, she has had a varied career, working on stage, film, and television. Rivers began her career as a touring comedian before her big break on The Tonight Show in the 1960s. In the 1970s, she wrote and/or starred in films, plays, and television movies. By the 1980s, Rivers had a high profile, first as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show then as the host of her own, usually short-lived talk shows. Rivers re-invented herself in the mid-1990s as a fashion commentator who often appeared with her daughter, Melissa.
Rivers was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky on June 8, 1933, in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City. She was the daughter of Meyer and Beatrice Molinsky. Her father was a doctor, while her mother had been born to wealth in Imperial Russia, but her family had become impoverished during the Russian Revolution. Rivers was raised in wealth with an older sister, Barbara, who became an attorney and was seen as better and more accomplished than her younger sister.
Rivers attended Connecticut College for Women, then Barnard College. As a student, she appeared in college productions of Othello and An Ideal Husband. Rivers earned her B.A. in English and anthropology from Barnard College in 1954. She then worked for Lord & Taylor, a New York City-based department store, as a publicist, as well as a fashion coordinator for Bond Clothing Stores in the 1950s. Rivers married for the first time to James Sanger, the heir to the Bond Stores fortune, in 1957. The marriage was short-lived, and annulled the following year.
When her marriage to Sanger ended, Rivers went home for a time and decided that she wanted to be an actress. She studied the craft and appeared in some Off Broadway plays. Rivers soon turned to comedy when she was told that was where her talents laid. She did not really have the support of her family, who wanted Rivers to marry. Instead, Rivers supported herself by becoming a comedian touring the United States under the name Pepper January.
From 1961 to 1962, Rivers worked with Second City, the well-known improvisational comedy troupe. After this run, she continued to perform as a comedian, primarily working in New York City. Her comedy focused on politics and society. Rivers had one immediate goal: appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After a number of unsuccessful attempts, she finally made her debut on the show in 1965. Carson said he enjoyed her act and stated she would be successful. This marked Rivers' first big break. She soon appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, a popular variety show, for the first time.
As Rivers' professional career began to soar, her personal life also improved. In 1964, she married her second husband, Edgar Rosenberg, a British producer. Together, they had one child, a daughter named Melissa. Rosenberg supported his wife's career and helped her hone her comedy act. He also helped her work through her fears about performing. Rivers' comedy focus gradually changed as she began talking about herself instead of others. Drawing on her Jewish, middle-class background, she made light of herself as an obese child, an adult who liked to shop, and a wife who could not cook.
In 1968, Rivers had her first shot at a talk show, the short-lived That Show Starring Joan Rivers. She also tried to break into films, with a small role in The Swimmer. Most of her success still came as a touring comedian, including stints in Las Vegas throughout the 1970s. Rivers also appeared on a number of television variety shows, as well as The Tonight Show on a regular basis.
In the 1970s, Rivers' career expanded beyond comedy and television as she moved into other genres. In 1972, she wrote and starred in her own Broadway play, Fun City. The following year, she co-wrote a television movie that aired on ABC, The Girl Most Likely To. During this same time period, she was writing a nationally syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. In 1977, Rivers wrote and directed her first feature film, Rabbit Test. Starring comedian Billy Crystal, the film focuses on the first man to become pregnant and give birth. The film was panned by critics.
After the failure of Husband, Wives, and Lovers, a 1978 television situation comedy that Rivers cocreated, she continued working on screenplay and television script ideas through the early 1980s. However, Rivers primarily focused on developing her own comic material and performing live. By this time, her comedy made fun of celebrities and other people, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Queen Elizabeth II, and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Rivers also focused on her own appearance, promoting plastic surgery, and the promiscuity of a made-up best friend. Of her take on comedy, she told Gerald Clarke of Time, "Comedy should always be on that very fine line of going too far. It should always be on the brink of disaster. Otherwise, it's pap and who cares? It's boring. Then you become the grand old lady ."
Rivers' frequent appearances on The Tonight Show led to her being a frequent substitute host for Carson. In 1983, she signed a contract making her the permanent substitute for Carson, essentially his co-host. Rivers hosted The Tonight Show on a weekly basis as Carson often went on vacation and worked many shortened weeks by this time period. Though sometimes controversial—especially among those she skewered with her comedy—she did well in the ratings. She sometimes drew better ratings than Carson himself. However, Rivers soon feuded with NBC over The Tonight Show because she allegedly was not being considered to replace Carson when he retired.
The situation with The Tonight Show soon worsened. In 1985, Rivers signed with the new FOX network to host her own talk show, The Late Show. The move was considered a stab in the back to Carson, who had helped her career in so many ways, because she worked on the deal without telling him about it. After she signed the three-year, $15 million deal, Carson and Rivers became rivals. The Late Show premiered in the fall of 1986, and only had low ratings and mostly negative reviews. Rivers was fired in the spring of 1987, and replaced by guest hosts.
One potential reason for the failure of The Late Show was tension between FOX and Rivers. The network wanted her to be more pleasant to guests and not the hard interviewer she had been on The Tonight Show. She also believed that she could not get great guests to appear. Rivers' husband acted as the show's executive producer and ran it behind the scenes. Rosenberg and FOX had major disagreements about The Late Show, and the network fired Rivers primarily because of him. It was believed that FOX would have kept her if she would have gotten rid of him.
The failure of The Late Show weighed heavily on Rosenberg. Soon after its end, he killed himself in a hotel room in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, the show's demise was probably not the only reason for his suicide. He had suffered two heart attacks and heart failure in 1984, and had to have bypass surgery. He and Rivers had also separated. After his death, the general perception by the public was that Rivers did not particularly care about her husband's suicide. This happened despite the fact that she had called him her strength and stability in print three years earlier and considered suicide herself for a time after his passing.
As Rivers pulled her life back together, she found she was no longer in demand as she had been. For a time, she was not booked in the same clubs as before because of her show's failure and husband's death. To continue to earn a leaving, she served as the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares for a time in 1987. Rivers also moved back to New York City, where she returned to the stage. She appeared as Kate in Broadway Bound, a critical and box office success.
Television still had its allure for Rivers, and she soon had new talk shows. Beginning in 1988, she had a gossipy syndicated daytime talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, which lasted for several years. On this show, she was open about herself—her surgeries, her husband's death, her relationship with her daughter—and tried to get her guests to be as honest about themselves. Rivers told Joanne Kaufman of People, "If I had seen myself as this real failure, I wouldn't have done this. But this was a case of getting back on the horse. I know I can do a talk show as well as some and better than others. And don't dare anyone tell me I cannot do something. I had to prove to myself I could." Rivers won a Daytime Emmy Award for her work on the show.
While The Joan Rivers Show was still on the air, Rivers began doing another show as well. In 1992, she did Joan Rivers' Gossip! Gossip! Gossip! for the USA network. Both shows were canceled in 1993. By this time, Rivers had another source of income. Since 1992, she had been selling her own line of jewelry on QVC. She later added other products to her line, including clothing. By early 1994, she had sold $60 million in jewelry and fashion. Rivers owned her own company to create these products called Joan Rivers Worldwide, of which she served as chief executive officer and president.
Rivers also continued to write and act in television and on stage. In 1994, she co-wrote a stage show with Lonny Price and Erin Sanders called Sally Marr and Her Escorts. It was loosely based on the life of comic Lenny Bruce's mother. When the show made it to Broadway, Rivers played the title role. That same year, Rivers and her daughter co-wrote the autobiographical television movie, Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, for NBC. The pair also starred in the movie, which focused on their relationship and Rivers' professional career after the death of her husband. Tears and Laughter did well in the ratings.
In 1995, Rivers started a new line of work, providing commentary on what celebrities wore to awards shows and related pre-awards shows with her daughter. The pair had a contract with E! Entertainment Television to do this commentary before the Emmys, Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and other events. Rivers and her daughter also interviewed attendees about all aspects of their lives when they walked on the red carpet. After several years, they also added a special after the Academy Awards to talk about who wore what to the ceremony.
While continuing her commentary shows, Rivers also began a new job. In 1997, she began hosting a syndicated talk show on WOR, a New York City-based radio station. It was eventually syndicated to about 50 other radio stations. On the show, Rivers interviewed guests, talked about the news, discussed both sides of a current issue, and did some comedy. The show ended its run in 2002.
Rivers continued to work as an actress on occasion. In 1997, she had a role for a few episodes on the soap opera Another World. In 2002, Rivers performed a solo show in England, Broke and Alone in London. Two years later, she had a guest appearance on the F/X show Nip/Tuck and provided a voice in the animated feature Shrek 2.
In 2004, Rivers and her daughter ended their relationship with E! and joined the TV Guide Channel for the same kind of commentary shows in June of that year. Rivers' three-year deal was worth $8 million. In addition to doing the award show programming, Rivers and her daughter also planned to do holiday specials and other shows for the TV Guide Channel. Of Rivers' importance to awards shows, Rose Apodaca Jones told Clarissa Cruz of Entertainment Weekly, "The red carpet is what it is because of Joan."
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What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most, Geffen, 1983.
Celebrity Biographies, Baseline II, 2005.
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