There are three canonical narratives involving people who didn’t end up hosting The Tonight Show. There’s the bristly, modern heir apparent, spurned in favor of his comfortable, safe rival: Letterman. There’s the tarnished golden boy, long-promised but dead on arrival, impatiently axed: Conan.
And then there’s Joan Rivers. Nobody ever promised Joan Rivers The Tonight Show, and nobody ever took it away from her, either. She made her first appearance on the show in 1965, and she became Johnny’s protégé for nearly 20 years—the biting, manic comic talent that gave Carson’s sometimes anodyne show the acid it needed. In 1983, she was named the show’s permanent guest host. On a show that had been guest-hosted by Jerry Lewis, Bob Newhart, and even Kermit the Frog, that was no mean feat. And while it’s unclear whether she would have been in the conversation to eventually replace Carson a decade later, it all blew up anyway. In 1986, Rivers abruptly left to start her own competing late show on FOX. The show was a disaster, but Carson never forgave her for leaving, and Rivers was banned from The Tonight Show, a prohibition that lasted all the way through Jay Leno’s tenure up to her triumphant return earlier this year.
Whether Rivers lost The Tonight Show or whether it was never hers to lose, the sense of loss that surrounded the break with Carson permeated her occasionally brilliant, bitter late career. As we flail around on the Internet on this sad day, coming to terms with what Joan Rivers meant to us as a comedian, as a female comedian, as an aging female comedian, we ought to appreciate what made her so fascinating and frustrating to watch over the past couple of decades in particular. After Tonight, Letterman rebounded, absorbed the blow into his acerbic sensibility, became stronger. Conan was laid low—his work since the NBC debacle feels like a study in post-traumatic showbiz stress. Joan Rivers, though, went dark. Her comedy, infused with a subcutaneous melancholy, became meaner, leaner, and, strangely, more soulful than ever before.
We should get two things out of the way first: her meanness and her face. Second only to Michael Jackson, Joan Rivers is the icon of modern plastic surgery. It’s been a fact of her celebrity from very early on, she’s talked about it in her act, and she’s even allowed some of her procedures to be filmed for her reality shows. When Lena Dunham promised Marc Maron she would deliver a zinger upon Rivers’ death, plastic surgery was, inevitably, the subject matter she went for. Rivers wore a mask, and she wasn’t bashful about saying so. The central irony of Rivers’ face, as it’s evolved over the years, is that the more artificial and mask-like her appearance became, the fewer and fewer shits she seemed to give about what anybody thought of her. Writing about Rivers’ face work, Roger Ebert said, “I think it’s wrong for most people. But show business is cruel and eats its old, and you do what you have to do.” To think of her surgeries as necessary, as tithes demanded and paid, is to get a vivid reminder of what Hollywood does even to women who are not sex symbols.
But if show business was cruel to Joan Rivers—and it was—Joan Rivers was cruel right back. In 1994, just two years after Leno took over for Carson, Rivers founded the institution with which she will likely always be associated. The format of Fashion Police has evolved, it’s jumped around to various networks, and the fawning foils surrounding her have been cast and recast, but the basic idea has remained the same: Joan Rivers has a TV show where she mercilessly, gleefully denigrates what other celebrities look like. For 20 years the show has proven to be the perfect platform for Rivers’ one-liner-at-a-time battle with show business. Like Rivers herself, the show has a weird insider-outsider perspective. Is it the party organ of Hollywood’s systematic war on women? Or is it a suicide attack from within Hollywood itself? It’s a spectacle, regardless—whether a playful roast or a knives-out free-for-all—and one that’s influenced everything from Project Runway to Go Fug Yourself. At its best, Fashion Police was a fun, backhanded celebration of all the forms beauty can take in Hollywood from America’s premier insult comic. At its worst, the show was mean-spirited fluff. (Or, in the words of the comedian’s most prominent inheritor, Chelsea Handler, “What the fuck do I care about Joan Rivers?”)
And then, in 2010, we got Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Hilarious, semi-tragic, unexpectedly raw, the documentary about Rivers’ late career is one of the best films ever made about stand-up comedy. It’s a performance, to be sure, a film about why a woman who declares herself an icon is an icon. But in service of that goal, it becomes a stunningly honest portrait of what show business has done to a woman who’s made a career saying things she shouldn’t say. Rivers talked openly about sex and sexism when that was a particularly alienating thing to do. In the documentary, she remembers how Jack Lemmon walked out of her stand-up show because he was disgusted by a joke she told about women supposedly sleeping their way to the top. (That people remember Lemmon as a mensch and often think of Rivers as some kind of monster says a lot about gender in Hollywood.) She then relates an early exchange with her manager: “A woman shouldn’t talk about that,” he advises after Rivers makes an off-color abortion joke. Rivers replies, “You’re wrong. This is exactly what we should be talking about.” For her whole career, Rivers has been self-consciously pushing boundaries. In recent years she’s often spectacularly pushed the wrong ones, but we shouldn’t forget that, at one time, she was pushing the right ones—and doing it virtually alone.
Even more striking than the picture we get of Rivers the feminist heroine is the picture of Rivers the professional. We see her immense card catalogue of jokes, with labels ranging from “No Self Worth” to “Tony Danza.” We see her hustling for work, accepting humiliating gigs, undertaking feats of endurance, and killing at every show she does. We see the joy she takes in her labor, but we also see that it is labor. Being Joan Rivers was hard work.
After seeing Piece of Work, Louis C.K., who’d always been a fan, wrote an episode of his FX series about an imaginary interaction between the two. The centerpiece of the episode is a captivating monologue by Rivers on being a comedian. She castigates Louie for being whiny about playing the small room, for looking down his nose at a gig, but she also delivers a moving defense of their art. “I wish I could tell you it gets better,” she tells him. “But it doesn’t get better. You get better. ... What we do is not a job. What we do is a calling, my dear. We make people happy. It’s a calling.” Rivers said she rewrote this scene with C.K., and the words ring true to her views on the subject. Comedy is a gift of one’s self to an audience. It’s a sacrifice of your own dignity in service of other people’s fleeting happiness. Comedy, for Rivers, and for C.K., is self-effacing in an almost total way.
Piece of Work begins with Rivers taking the stage at a small club to do some stand-up. The audience is with her, but it looks like the type of club Louie was complaining about. The first lines of the movie are these: “This is my career. I mean, how depressing is this? Forty years in the fucking business, and this is where you end up.” She’s right, it is depressing. And for 40—50!—years of angry, offensive, critical, path-breaking comedy, that’s what she was trying to tell us.