Joan Rivers’s Trailblazing, Troubled, and Complicated Role in Late-Night TV

She was the only woman to host a late-night show, and may be the reason why there hasn’t been one since. Remembering Joan Rivers’s groundbreaking and dramatic late-night history.

Joseph Del Valle/NBC, via Getty

Can you be a trailblazer when no one has followed your trail?

Joan Rivers didn’t so much as pave the path to becoming the first woman in late-night TV so much as she bushwhacked it. And since her tumultuous navigation to that landmark distinction, that path has famously been all-but closed, with no other woman hosting a nightly talk show on a broadcast network since.

The distress and drama that ensued when the steely, salty comedian parlayed the platform Johnny Carson had given her on The Tonight Show to her very own, ultimately failed talk show on Fox is legend at this point—a broken friendship, a dark cloud over a booming career, and decades of waffling over the role of women in late night left in its wake.

Rivers died Thursday afternoon at age 81 of complications from minor surgery, and we’ve done in the past day that thing we always do when celebrities who seemed so present, so vibrant, and so eternal leave us. We’ve revisited her pop-culture contributions we’ve loved the most. We’ve soaked in her most quotable quotes. And we’ve learned about her.

We’ve learned about what she really meant to the entertainment industry, and society. And we’ve learned about her life—when an entertainer has been steadily working for as many decades as Rivers has, there’s so much about her rich life for those of us who came to it later on to discover.

On that latter point, it’s fascinating—and almost apropos, for Rivers—that one of the defining and most important tenets of her legacy is the dramatic failure of her late-night talk show, an event that resonated for her personally and had ramifications in the entertainment industry ever since. It’s strange, and if not peculiar, then at least noteworthy, that Rivers’s death came at a time when the landscape of late-night is changing both drastically, and not at all.

We’re in the midst in what might the biggest shake-up in late-night TV there has ever been. Jay Leno signed off from The Tonight Show after 22 years in February. Dave Letterman is about to do the same from The Late Show. Their departures triggered a revolving door of replacements and new hires: Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, James Corden. All white guys in suits. No women.

The one woman since Rivers to find success in late-night, Chelsea Handler on the bowels of cable on the E! channel with Chelsea Lately, ended her show. But instead of heading to one of those network platforms, like many think she was owed, to follow in Rivers’s footsteps, she’s heading to Netflix.

As many have remembered in the past day in their tributes to the showbiz legend, the reason that the conversation about having diversity and women in late-night even exists is because of Joan Rivers. But could she also be the reason why there hasn’t been one since?

Should you need reminding, Rivers’s own history with late-night is one of those great show business stories, full of betrayal, heartbreak, the highest highs, the lowest lows, glory, embarrassment, and even death.

Every wide-eyed comedian needs their big break, and Rivers got the biggest one of all, given to her by then Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. “He handed me my career,” Rivers later said about Carson’s hiring of her as a writer in 1965. She frequently filled in for Carson, eventually being named his permanent guest host in 1983—perhaps the most prestigious late-night position at the time beyond actually being Johnny Carson.

But while Carson was certainly Rivers’s supporter, he was never her close friend. Still, Rivers was fiercely loyal, turning down offers to appear on rival shows and even offers to helm her own talk show, not wanting to betray her career kingmaker. But by the time she was approached by Fox to host her own show in March 1986, things had changed. The loyalty she had assumed was mutual was looking to be suspiciously unreciprocated.

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Bucking a tradition in which her guest-host contract was always renewed for the same amount of time Carson’s contract was, Carson had signed on for two more years of The Tonight Show in 1985 and Rivers was only offered a contract for one. “It could only mean one thing,” Rivers later wrote. “The powers were uncertain about my future.”

She was right. It became clear to her that she would never succeed Carson, to the point that at one point she claimed to see a list of successors NBC was considering, which didn’t include her name—or the name of any woman on it. When negotiations with NBC became increasingly casual and tepid, she accepted the offer from Fox, infuriating Carson, who hung up on her when she called to talk it through, blacklisted her from The Tonight Show (a ban that lasted until Jimmy Fallon took over in 2014), and never spoke to her again. Ever.

Nonetheless, Rivers was jubilant about her new platform. “For the first time in 53 years, I know, by God, that I truly belong,” she told People at the time. “Nobody can stop me.”

The invincibility was short-lived.

The Late Show with Joan Rivers didn’t even last a year, with Rivers ousted in favor of Arsenio Hall. She reportedly feuded with network executives, who claimed she never truly found her voice as a host. “People don’t want to see a nice Joan Rivers,” a remarkably candid NBC programming chief Fred Silverman was quoted as saying at the time.

And then things got even darker, as dark as they could get. Rivers’s husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide, reportedly as a direct reaction to the cancellation of wife’s talk show. Eight months later, Rivers considered committing suicide herself.

Rivers later emerged from the dark headspace, which is not to say that an embittered grudge didn’t permeate her comedy for, really, the rest of her career. This isn’t to say that the cancellation of her show muddied the remainder of her life with darkness. She hosted other shows: in daytime, on E!, and even on the web. But she was, in her words, ruined, and for a long time.

The entertainment industry is funny. As fleeting as its memory is, famously forgetting a majority of its players in 15 minutes of less, in other instances it never forgets. All these decades later, as we channel surf the parade of pleasant white male comedians fronting late-night talk shows, the failure of The Late Show with Joan Rivers is seared in executives’ minds as a cautionary tale.

There was no more logical choice for a woman to host a late-night talk show than the one who was trained at the right hand of Johnny Carson, the best there ever was. And she failed. If she couldn’t do it, was it worth even trying again? After all, this wasn’t just a TV show that didn’t work out. Its failure led to one death, and nearly to a second.

Still, whenever there’s a search for a new late-night host, as there has been pretty much incessantly in the past year with Leno, Letterman, and Craig Ferguson vacating their seats, there’s almost a begging from the culture-at-large to name a woman. Typically the contenders outsiders root for are the ones who would never take the job—Tina Fey or Amy Poehler—or the ones who are considered far too raunchy to ever really be seriously considered by networks: Chelsea Handler, Kathy Griffin, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, and the like.

It makes sense that people’s minds would go to that crop of female comedians. They are the direct descendants of Joan Rivers, after all, torch bearers of her brazenness, her free-wheeling and ribald candor, and her ambassadorship of free speech, no matter how button-pushing, how allegedly mean, or how offensive. To that regard, a 2008 Vanity Fair piece called the lack of women in late-night, among other avenues of comedy, the “crass ceiling.”

There’s this assumption, perhaps, that if there’s another woman fronting a late-night talk show on broadcast TV, they must be Joan Rivers-types, because Joan Rivers is the only one to have done it. But TV is different now. Joan Rivers-types don’t want to be on network TV, because network TV, with censor rules and decency standards, constrains them from being just that: Joan Rivers-types. “I like that I can just say whatever I want, I can curse and say things and they just bleep me,” Handler once told Dave Letterman about why she was happy on the E! channel. “It’s not like being on CBS.”

The lowest point of Joan Rivers’s career is certainly part of what has plagued the idea of women in late night ever since. But the best thing about Joan Rivers’s career—her crackling, unpredictable, four-letter-laden candor—is another, perhaps equally important component.

It’s been 30 years since Joan Rivers hosted her Late Show. Things are different now than they were then, and she recently told CNN what she thinks it takes for a woman to be seriously considered to fill those shoes she wore all those decades ago. “You have to be extraordinarily strong without them seeing you be that,” she said in 2013. “You’re a lion tamer. You have to be in total command, but you still have to feminine, and you still have to be funny, and you still have to be inquisitive—it’s a very tough thing, and it’s tough for women because you don’t expect a woman to take control. Still.”

With us more keen now than ever to take heed of Rivers’s words, that last quote is ever-important as we remember that the trail she blazed is still there, even if it’s a bit overgrown and hasn’t been traveled in a while. There are women that come to mind who could still venture down it: a comedian like Julie Klausner, a consummate host like Amy Sedaris, or a variety talent like Maya Rudolph. And maybe one day they will.