November 27, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
On May 16, 1987 Joan Rivers said goodbye. It was the final episode of The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers—the show that was supposed to make Rivers a household name like Carson or Letterman. Rivers was hired to help the fledgling Fox network compete with NBC, ABC, and CBS. Instead, she was leaving Fox and preparing for an uncertain future in a changing industry—one for which she was unfit and one she betrayed.
On that same date in the same building a 22-year-old comedian was set to make his first ever television appearance on that final show. Chris Rock feared he’d never work again after he performed, but he was well suited for the changing industry.
This final episode of Rivers’ show is the representation of the turning point in comedy from ‘80s to the ‘90s and how loyalty made and broke careers. The show signified the changing of the guard in late night comedy. Rivers was the old and Rock was the new. In 1987, though The Tonight Show was still at the top of its game, it was nearing its end; Carson planned to retire. Comedy was clearing a path for fresher faces—Chris Rock, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler would be joining SNL only a few years later. Letterman was changing the definition of Late Night television with his anti-host persona. Conan O’ Brien would host his own absurdist Late Night show soon. For Joan Rivers it was bad critics, bad timing, and burnt bridges. For Rock, it was intrigue, perfect timing, and connections with one of the most important comedians of the era.
Joan Rivers and Chris Rock were both raised in Brooklyn and both began performing at an early age—Rivers performed in comedy clubs in Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s and Rock performed in night clubs in the mid ‘80s. Rivers was already a notable standup comedian by the ‘60s and ‘70s, frequently performing on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. Though controversial and unappreciated by critics, Rivers became the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show in 1983 after building 20 years of respect from Johnny Carson—the man whose admiration any prospective star needed if he or she wanted a successful career from 1962-1992.
Chris Rock had never been on television; you didn’t know him unless you’d seen him in night clubs. He was a standup trying to make a name for himself in Eddie Murphy’s ‘80s. Soon, Murphy discovered Rock in a club. While Rock was on stage he heard the distinct Eddie Murphy laugh; he knew that meant a career. Murphy gave him a bit part in Beverly Hills Cop II and Chris Rock’s career had launched.
Carson gave Rivers her start, but Rivers did not inform Carson of her three year, $15 Million contract with Fox to host the network’s first late night talk show until it was too late. “Fox came and offered me my own show,” said Rivers in her 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. “And Edgar would be the producer. Of course we said yes. The first person I called was Johnny Carson. He slammed the phone down. I called him again. He slammed it down again. And never spoke to me again, ever.” Carson was all about loyalty. And Rivers betrayed him. She lost confidence knowing Carson wasn’t an ally anymore. As the ratings continued to fall Rivers was asked to fire her husband as producer, but she refused. This was the end for Rivers as a late night player.
Rock and Rivers were terrified during the taping of Rivers’ last show. Rock thought it would be the last performance of his career; he worked with the segment producers prior to taping and prepared his act so that when he hit his closing joke, the house band would play. Rock said: “I get up there, my first joke doesn’t go well…I’m going change my order and do my closer now and then I’ll get to those other jokes later. So it’s forty seconds in and I’m talking and the band kicks in and I’m just standing there not knowing what to do.” Subsequently he had to sit next to Howie Mandel and Pee Wee Herman on the couch. Rock cites this as his worst moment on stage.
After the finale aired the Chicago Tribune wrote a piece with the headline: “Rivers Says Goodbye Not A Minute Too Soon.” The critics still didn’t like Rivers, even until the end of the show. “I’ll be back a lot sooner than you all may think,” Rivers said in her final monologue with a vague sense of optimism. But Rivers was not sure where she was going. At this point in her career the entertainment industry was not as open to her as it was to someone like Rock, a young comedian who engaged a youthful audience. Rivers was not only disliked by critics but by others in the business; her celebrity scorn had annoyed publicists who expressed anger at Rivers for “…messing up guests names, forgetting to ask about the project they were there to promote, cutting their promised time short, and worst of all, not listening.”
Only three months after the final episode aired, Rivers’ husband killed himself by overdosing on Valium. Rivers eventually returned to television—winning a daytime Emmy with “The Joan Rivers Show” and joined the Fashion police on E! But she never landed a show as high profile as The Late Show again. She entered the late night arena and lost. So she built a new arena, one with red carpets, plastic surgery jokes, and cameos in films like Iron Man 3 and Tower Heist, playing herself. Rock became an SNL player, a movie star, and won an Emmy with The Chris Rock Show, the show that illustrated how Rock fit into ‘90s comedy with skits that addressed cultural and political issues. Rock became one of the most important standup comedians of all time due to the shifting landscape of fresher faces in the late ‘80s and knowing Eddie Murphy.
Rivers had Carson. Rock had Murphy. Though the comedy of both Rivers and Rock dealt with personal struggle and observational humor, the industry welcomed the new and threw out the old—especially those who betrayed the business. Rivers had turned on Carson and Carson never spoke to her again, but Rock stayed with Murphy, appearing in Boomerang in 1992. Rivers and Rock will always be linked through this final show as the illustration of how the comedy landscape shifted in the late ‘80s and how loyalty played a factor in the career of a comedian at the time.