How Joan Rivers Got Her Start

When Joan Rivers finally got to The Tonight Show in 1965, following years of obscurity, Johnny Carson waved her over to the couch. “God, you’re funny,” he said, still wiping tears from his eyes. “You’re going to be a star.”

Joan rivers
(Chicago Tribune / MCT / Alamy Live News)

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Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967

I was never popular with boys. I was so fat at summer camp that they made me be my own buddy. And by the time boys began to like me, it was too late. Because I had liked them from the start, and by now I was bitter.

When it all started, when I told my mother and father I was going into [show] business, they didn’t speak to me for a year. The yelling scene the day I told them! My mother ran around the house slamming the windows shut. She didn’t want the neighbors to hear what a scandal her daughter had become.

But I had to be a success. Anyway, after the argument with my parents, I left. I never asked them for a penny again. It was never offered. I slept in my car that night. It wasn’t the last time.

I started out by playing places in Greenwich Village, ‘discovery’ places. They didn’t pay you, just gave you a stage. In one place, they literally passed the hat. But who’s in the audience? Other starving kids trying to get started.

And seven years went by. That’s right, I’d been in the business seven years, six of them as an office temporary. Sometimes I’d get a nighttime job to buy gas for the car. Once I worked from midnight to 5 a.m. after one of these nonpaying shows, typing up a psychiatrist’s notes in a lunatic asylum. At 5 a.m. I’d drive home to Larchmont, sleep a little, and then spend the rest of the day making rounds, calling agents, looking for work. Nothing. And then it would be night again, time to go to whatever club I was working in and start it all over again. Some nights when it was all over, I’d just lock the doors and sleep in the car.

Joan Rivers
Woman of a thousand faces: Rivers in performance. (Stephen Manville, © SEPS)

Seven years. You know what seven years is to a girl? All the eligible men are married, your mother is looking at you funny and sighing, the girlfriends you went to school with have babies and are ordering cruise clothes at Bergdorf’s, secure, and you’re working for a CPA in a back office, doing income-tax reports.

When did the good times start? February 17, 1965. I was working for NBC then, but as a writer. As a performer, well — I had been around too long. They all liked me, but no one was crazy for me. I used to go see my agent and cry. Anyway, someone tried to get me on the Johnny Carson show, but his people were afraid I’d make Johnny nervous. But three weeks later they were desperate for a last-second replacement. And there I was, near, in the NBC building. They didn’t want me in the guest comic spot, but at the end of the show, where they put ‘interesting people,’ like writers. And then suddenly, when I began my act, it was Cinderella time. The washer women dropped their rags into their buckets to listen, the NBC pages came in and laughed, the cigars left the open mouths behind the control room window and didn’t go back in.

But I still can’t believe people are willing to pay to hear me. I’m embarrassed to love it so much.

—“Who Are You, Joan?” by W. H. Manville, July 1, 1967

Rivers of laughs

“I’m a lousy cook, but it’s not my fault. I grew up on radio dinners. Do you know what’s delicious? TV dinners … now that I’ve learned to warm them up.”

“Housework is so futile. You dust and make the bed, and two weeks later you have to do it all over again.”

“A single girl, if she’s 30, she’s an old maid. A man, he’s 90 years old, he’s single, he’s a catch. ‘We have an extra man.’ ‘Bring him along.’ ‘He’s 93.’ ‘Bring him, bring him.’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘BRING HIM! We’ll say he’s shy.’”

This article is featured in the March/April 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Chicago Tribune / MCT / Alamy Live News

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  1. I don’t approve of Joan Rivers, or appreciate Bob’s new comments of approval here again years later. I heard her act was often very naughty which make me uncomfortable. A shocking, disgraceful woman.

  2. Putrid old racist #@$&. I’ll never forget the vile things she said about President and Mrs. Obama. Good riddance. I never knew when she was younger how much venom she had inside.


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