Photo: Timothy White, Courtesy of E! Networks
When you hear the name Joan Rivers, chances are your first thoughts are of Fashion Police, the E! show originally hosted by her that turned red carpet commentary into TV entertainment. And though Rivers did revolutionize awards show fashion with her critical and controversial sense of humor, Fashion Police (and its precursor, Live from the Red Carpet) was one of the last stops on her 50-plus year career in the entertainment industry. In this vein, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles is opening the exhibit Joan Rivers: Can We Talk today (it’s also her birthday) to pay homage to Rivers’ career, from her infamous 1965 appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to her 2014 book, Diary of a Mad Diva.
Long before Joan Rivers brought her brash commentary to the red carpet, she established herself as a pioneer in female comedy. She got her start doing stand-up in 1960s Greenwich Village clubs, and she first introduced the world to her particular brand of sharp wit when her mentor Johnny Carson invited her to perform on his show in 1965. She spent much of the next decade doing stand-up and appearing on various television shows, including a regular spot as Carson’s guest host. In the latter half of the 1980s, she became her friend’s on-air competitor when she became the first female comedian with a late-night talk show, The Late Show With Joan Rivers. The show’s ill-fated run didn’t stop Rivers from making a name for herself; she moved to daytime with The Joan Rivers Show, for which she earned an Emmy in 1990.
Photo: Charles William Bush
Anyone in tune with pop culture can attest that after Rivers died in September 2014, the internet blew up with video clips of her comedic appearances from the 1960s through the 80s. Her tragic death and the media attention surrounding it made the younger, so-called millennial generation, aware of Rivers as a trailblazing late-night comic. She was no longer just that lady on the red carpet with a lot of snark. Brian Edwards, Rivers’ longtime family friend and producer of Joan Rivers: Can We Talk, took the Grammy Museum project on to continue her legacy while building awareness on her career. “The older generations have watched Joan transition from comic to writer to producer, but the younger generation identifies her with Fashion Police. I want to bridge the gap,” he explained.
The exhibit is part of the Grammy Museum’s continuing series that spotlights great comedic performers. It displays artifacts from every part of her career, including her recent 2014 Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. Rivers had signed on to do the exhibit last summer, and after she died, her daughter Melissa gave the blessing to continue the project.
Her legacy is important now more than ever in the male-dominated arena of comedy. As The Hollywood Reporter’s comedy actress roundtable shed light on a few weeks ago, sexism is rampant in the business of making people laugh. Women are fighting back, and every couple of months, a new female comedian rises to the top of our trending news feeds, whether it’s a Mindy Kaling tweet, Amy Schumer quote, or Broad City video clip. There’s a whole crop of female comics who came before them, like Ellen DeGeneres and Roseanne Barr, but before them, it was Joan Rivers. “Joan was an inspirational part of show business and pop culture,” said Edwards. “She was the queen of comedy… she led the way, and I hope people take away from this exhibit an appreciation for all that she accomplished.”
The exhibit will be on display on the Grammy Museum’s third floor through September 20, 2015. Learn more about it here, and check out a clip of early Rivers below.