1986 was a big year for Joan Rivers. She was playing sold-out shows all over the country. She released a new book, Enter Talking. And she was a fixture on television as the permanent guest host on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, which at the time was late night’s most popular show. After more than two decades of climbing the comedy ladder with her brassy, spitfire humor, the self-proclaimed “last girl in Larchmont” had finally become a real star.
1986 was also the year Fox offered Rivers her own show — as a competitor to The Tonight Show. After Rivers accepted the offer, Carson — her friend, mentor, and champion of 20 years — never spoke to her again. By 1987, the ratings on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers were less-than-stellar, and Fox fired her. Later that year River’s husband and producer, Edgar Rosenberg, killed himself.
Faced with personal tragedy and humiliating professional defeat, Rivers didn’t give up. Instead, she reinvented herself, and by the 2000s returned to the center of the conversation — bigger and better than ever.
Unlike her late-night show, River's daytime talk show was a huge success
In 1989, less than two years after her husband’s death, Rivers went back to work. She developed a new daytime television program, The Joan Rivers Show. Unlike her ill-fated foray into late night, The Joan Rivers Show was an immediate hit. Rivers won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1990, and the show was nominated for several other awards. It ran for five seasons.
Also in 1990, Rivers began her long-running association with the QVC channel, where she sold her own line of (usually bedazzled) jewelry, clothing and accessories. At the time, Rivers chalked up the decision to start hawking her wares to debt: “In those days only dead celebrities went on [QVC]," she told the Staten Island Advance in 2004. “My career was over. I had a lot of bills to pay. I have a very large family and we all take care of each other.”
The Joan Rivers Classics Collection would turn into an enormously successful venture, however, amassing over $1 billion in sales and becoming one of QVC’s top-selling lines. Moreover, her appearances on the shopping channel — which continued until her death in 2014 — became yet another venue to make people laugh.
Rivers and her daughter teamed up for a TV movie as a form of therapy
In 1994, Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, teamed up to publicly reckon with Edgar’s suicide in the form of a made-for-TV movie. Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story premiered in May of that year, with the pair playing real-life versions of themselves as they come to terms with Edgar’s death.
At first, critics accused Rivers of exploiting the tragedy for dramatic effect; later many credited the film with helping destigmatize suicide. Rivers said she paid no mind to the initial backlash. “It was very therapeutic for Melissa and me,” she said. “Edgar’s death was so raw. So we bonded tremendously.”
The same year, E! asked Rivers to host the Golden Globes pre-show red carpet. In 1995, she and Melissa hosted the carpet for the Academy Awards, interviewing celebrities as they paraded by.
“Melissa knew someone at E!,” Rivers explained to Vanity Fair in 2014. “And they were saying, ‘Who should we put out on the red carpet?’ It is a horrible job and no one was doing it then. And Melissa said, ‘My mother.’” Rivers added, “It was a very low time for me.”
Rivers became a red carpet staple
Stepping onto the red carpet turned out to be another smart move. With their biting commentary and snappy banter, the mother/daughter duo breathed new life into the staid pre-show ritual. The pair even came up with the now-standard line, “Who are you wearing?”
“Fashion is fun, and that’s the way it should be,” Rivers told Vanity Fair. She would host the red carpet for E! until 2004, and later the hit series Fashion Police from 2010-2014, where she cemented her status as a fully-fledged style authority.
By 2014, Rivers had been the subject of a critically-acclaimed documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, authored nine more books and was routinely performing clubs across the country. She had made it back on top.
“People love to build you up, and then they love to destroy you,” Rivers told Vogue in May 1986, right before her life would fall apart and come back together. “And then they love to venerate you at the end.”