Can we talk?
Let’s talk about how Joan strides out, clutching her head in astonishment, wearing sequins and beaming. The audience hoots. She riles them for more applause. They go wild. And watching the whole thing — this thing being Joan Rivers’s first episode of her late-night talk show — might give you a little chill. There’s something thrilling about seeing this woman own a late-night stage with a house band, couch, the whole bit. There is so much promise.
And then so much disappointment.
Our Queen of Comedy, our fashion policewoman, the hardest-working woman in showbiz with a laser-sharp tongue but a heart as gooey as a Cadbury creme egg, who died unexpectedly last September, was the first woman to host a late-night talk show — The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers on Fox — a supposedly traitorous act which inspired longtime mentor Johnny Carson, for whom she guest hosted on The Tonight Show, to famously shut her out.
In honor of James Corden’s crowning as the new prince of The Late Late Show on CBS, I re-watched Joan’s first episode from October 9, 1986 to see how it’s held up in the intervening three decades, and to judge whether her inaugural season predicted the dire, womanless straits of late-night TV today. Spoiler alert: The problem isn’t Joan — it’s the institution.
During the monologue-less opening, she mentions it’s been five months since the announcement of her show, “So much has been said, so much has been written” — here her voice breaks — “and I’m just so happy to be here.”
She wouldn’t be there long. Her Late Show was canceled after one season and shortly afterwards Joan’s husband Edgar, who was a producer, committed suicide owing to the show’s failure. Rivers was then tagged with the ignominious distinction of being the only woman to host a late-night network show — ever.
No one could accuse her of not giving it her best effort. “Now I can go for spontaneity, try for the excitement that comes from taking chances. A talk show should be on the edge, suspenseful, a little bit dangerous,” she wrote before the premiere. “I want the show to be talked about, want sometimes to shock, want people to be rude or cry or storm off or come out drunk.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. Her inaugural guest line-up is positively ‘80s: David Lee Roth (working a white glove-and-knee high boots ensemble); Pee Wee Herman; Elton John; and Cher.
They all stay on the couch and banter, a trick also featured on Corden’s new show, which some have described as “innovative,” and which Johnny Carson did before either host. Sticking to the Holy Trinity of late-night banter (music, movies, marriage), Rivers asks Roth about all the women on the road and he plays coy. Mila Kunis did the same this past week when Corden pestered her about her supposed nuptials to Ashton Kutcher.
So nearly three decades later, the guest-host chit-chat remains the same. As does the bald corporate shilling. Joan plops an oversized bottle of Michelob on her desk, thanking Anheuser-Busch for being a charter sponsor of her show. During his first episode, Corden pointed out the on-set bar and gave his sponsor Bud Light a nice namedrop. Pee Wee gives Joan a bracelet held together with Scotch tape; Kunis gifted Corden a piece from her new jewelry line. Yawn.
The best bit comes when a ponytailed Elton compliments Joan’s earrings and she says, ‘Oh yes, you and your wife like beautiful jewelry,’ and my head explodes after recalling he was briefly married to a woman in the ‘80s.
“Women like to mother me,” Elton says, and between that and his casual mention of leather bars, you can see the jokes sparking behind Joan’s eyes. She wants to take the bait, but doesn’t say a word. This is not the Joan we know. This is Late-Night Joan, genial and happy and even polite. Where’s the fun in that?
(For you celebrity gossip historians, Joan’s second night features a juicy bit of predestination when a just-married Whoopi Goldberg meets fellow guest Ted Danson. Six years later, those two will have an on-set affair that will end his marriage. Did Joan plan it all? We’ll never know the truth.)
Joan’s first episode is harmless. It certainly didn’t live up to the “dangerous fun” she sought. Many have pointed to her failure as one of the reasons no woman has been given a seat on a network chat show, and the recent earthquakes ripping up late-night topography (Letterman and Stewart are out, Colbert is in) has resurfaced debate over the role of women in the vaunted 11:30 to 1:30 time slot. Namely: Where the hell are they?
When Craig Ferguson was leaving the Late Late Show, Kathy Griffin openly campaigned for his seat and says one executive responded, “They’re not considering females at this time.”
“Why not Amy Schumer?” people cried. “Kathy Griffin, Maya Rudolph, Tina ’n’ Amy? Sarah Silverman? Hello [mic tap] is this thing even on?”
CBS gave the spot to Corden, a fine Tony Award-winning actor, if not a suspicious fit for the job. Griffin eventually took up Joan’s old chair on E!’s Fashion Police and stayed for all of seven episodes.
During his first week, Corden’s ratings were decent and critics were mostly forgiving, reserving barbs for the 36-year-old’s appearance: he’s “portly,” bears “an odd resemblance to a golden retriever,” seems “aggressively pleasant…with a matinee idol haircut,” and, ultimately, seems like “the guy who’d restore data on your iPhone.” Now doesn’t that sound like a man worth a years-long investment?
There are plenty of women who could easily conquer late-night, but by 2015, it’s laughable it hasn’t already happened. When her E! contract was over, Chelsea Handler was floated as a possible Letterman successor, but Stephen Colbert got the job.
Then in February, an enthusiastic Internet coalition nominated Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams to replace Jon Stewart with a petition asking Comedy Central to install the 26-year-old when Stewart departs later this year.
Williams tweeted that she was “underqualified,” fans clamored for her to “lean in” and take what was hers, and everyone went insane — never mind that no one actually bothered asking whether she wanted the job.
Here’s a novel idea: Why don’t we stop pretending that network shows are actually anything worth aspiring to? Ratings are weak, everyone’s asleep by the first commercial break, the best bits live online the next day, and the comedy’s so watered down it won’t make your grandmother blush. Just look at what the institution did to Joan three decades ago.
The brightest talents should follow the heat and go towards networks that will provide innovative platforms, and right now that doesn’t feel like ABC, NBC, CBS, or FOX (though the latter should know Late Night with Cookie Lyon would absolutely kill). Chasing a Tonight Show or Late Night perch because they’re historically relevant or for the title alone now feels old-fashioned at best, shortsighted at worst.
That may explain why Chelsea Handler struck a huge, seven-year deal with Netflix to bring a talk show and comedy specials to the streaming service in 2016. “Network TV is so limiting. There are so many parameters,” she told Variety. “It’s such a different relationship than with E!; it’s nice to be involved in a show where I do respect their opinions.” She added: “It’s like going out with a guy that you’re proud to be seen with.”
There’s no doubt Netflix will give Handler freer rein than a network more concerned with selling Jack in the Box ads and promoting celebrities who star in their other shows.
On guest-hosting the Tonight Show, Rivers said, “[It] gave me stature and cachet and tone. It meant I belonged. It was the fulcrum of my life, my security blanket, my essential source of pride.” But when that disappeared, Joan managed to move on…and on…and on.
Rivers’ obituaries didn’t lead with her late-night failure. Joan reinvented herself a dozen times over She’s remembered for her quick with, super-human work ethic, and living a very full life until the end, not for throwing to commercial after six-minute celebrity chats — and because of that, I’m glad her Late Show didn’t succeed. T
Joan couldn’t have predicted that nearly 30 years later there would still be no other heiress to break into the late-night domain. But neither could she have predicted its shabby state. There’s the same unspoken rules, tired conventions, and humorless overlords.
We don’t need more celebrity interviewers or rap battle viral videos or James Cordens. We need more originals, more Joans — and if they’re wise, these women won’t chase after the dull brass rings of late-night and instead forge their own.