Born and raised in New York, Joan Molinsky married and became Joan Rosenberg, and then in an effort to sound more “showbiz-ey,” Joan Rivers.
Before Joan was a performer, she was a writer. Her first paid writing job came about when a friend of hers was hired by the Sullivan show to write sketches for the Italian mouse puppet Topo Gigio on The Ed Sullivan Show. He felt the work was beneath him, so Joan offered to do it. “I was born corrupt,” she said “I lay on the floor and wrote a sketch about this comic Italian puppet mouse, with a little Italian accent, who had become a semi-fad in America. I had him asking Ed Sullivan to explain football. I put Topo in a little football jersey that said ¼ on the back. Topo Gigio paid my car payments for six months. God bless that little lousy mouse.”
Her first stand-up appearance on the show was a result of one of Ed’s famous verbal gaffes. “When I first went on, May 22nd 1966, I went on by mistake. I don’t know if it was early Alzheimer’s, but [Sullivan] was a little foggy sometimes. Right before the show’s booking agents had been pitching singer Johnny Rivers to him, and he went out and said, ‘Next week, Joan Rivers!’” Since she had already been announced, the show was forced to pay whatever her agents asked for. She recalls “I went in at star money!” Sullivan introduced her as a “very funny girl you will all love.” Sure enough, they did.
She was thrilled to be on Sullivan, and respected the power he had over performers’ careers. “When Ed Sullivan put his arm around you and called you over and said, ‘She’s a really funny little lady’, America said ‘She’s a really funny little lady.’ Ed Sullivan was America’s taste.” Joan became a regular guest on the show, appearing several times a year from 1966 until the show ended its 23 year run in 1971. Her stand-up material was varied. She would joke about her marriage, life in New York, and her favorite target — beautiful, stupid women.
As exciting as it was being on live television, it was it was also very stressful for Joan. Comedians had to keep their act to a specific time. They knew if they changed even a word and the show’s timing was altered, they wouldn’t be asked back. They would sometimes also have to try their act out in front of Ed at his home. Joan remembers: “He would sit behind his desk and you would do your whole act for Ed Sullivan. It was a nightmare. And then they didn’t want me to bother to do it anymore because I was on so much, but I was superstitious. As long as I did the show, I would go up a few days before Sunday and stand in front of his desk and just do the whole act for him. It was amazing.” Joan and her husband, Edgar became social friends of Ed and his wife, Sylvia. In 1968, when Joan appeared on the show nine months pregnant, she wasn’t allowed by censors to say the word “pregnant”. “I was a house with shoes, and I could never say pregnant. I wasn’t at all risqué in those days,” she remembers, “but he was very worried about me because I was a woman.” When Joan’s daughter Melissa was born, the Sullivans were named her godparents.
Rivers’ last performance on The Ed Sullivan Show took place on November 29th 1970. In her final stand-up act, Joan talked about the frustrations that come with dating football players. In that same show, she performed a comedy sketch with Norm Crosby in which she played a desperate housewife who just wanted some loving from the grocery delivery man. Rivers’ career post-Sullivan has been a busy one. She was the first regular guest host on The Tonight Show, went on to host her own The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, and then the daytime Joan Rivers Show, for which she won an Emmy. She has been nominated for a Tony, written books, plays, directed a feature film, created her own jewelry and cosmetics lines, and has never let anyone or anything stop her. Joan Rivers has been a household name for almost 50 years.