September 5, 2014
Joan Rivers was as relentless as her comedy.
“I’ll show you fear,” Rivers says in the 2010 documentary A Piece of Work as she points at an empty date book. “That’s fear. If my book ever looked like this, it would mean nobody wants me, that everything I ever tried to do in life didn’t work, nobody cared, and I’ve been totally forgotten.”
That never happened, because she never stopped working. Rivers hosted the long-running E! network’s Fashion Police and an online talk show In Bed with Joan, starred in the reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? with her daughter and wrote Diary of a Mad Diva, which she promoted on more than a dozen talk shows — and that was this year alone. Her upcoming stand-up tour was to be called “Before They Close the Lid.” More than 20 dates were scheduled
The indefatigable Rivers died Thursday. She was 81 years old.
On Feb. 17, 1965, when Rivers was 31 years old, she made her first appearance on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. She wore a black Jax dress, a string of pearls and a pink boa. She told jokes about being single and problems with her car. “God, you’re funny,” Carson said on the air. “You’re going to be a star.”
A month later, Rivers was the lead guest on the show and quickly became one of Carson’s favorites, making more than 50 appearances. In 1983, she became the first permanent guest host of The Tonight Show. Three years later, she signed a five-year, $15 million contract with the new Fox network to host her own show.
“The first person I called was Johnny Carson,” Rivers said in A Piece of Work. “He slammed the phone down. I called him again, and he slammed it down again and never spoke to me again — ever.”
Rivers told this story so often and with such conviction that it became accepted as truth, mostly because Carson never spoke of Rivers publicly, except for a few veiled references in his monologue, and partly because Rivers outlived him by nine years.
But Carson already knew of Rivers’ impending move when she made the call, according to King of the Night by Laurence Leamer. Her mistake, Carson felt, was in not telling him sooner. If she had, Carson might have wished her well on the air, as he had done with David Brenner and Alan Thicke and later with Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall when they began their competing shows.
“I’m not taking her call,” Carson said. “It was a little late in arriving … about three months late.”
In the following months, Rivers tried to hire away some of Carson’s top personnel, including longtime producer Peter Lassally and a highly regarded talent coordinator. Carson gave them more money to stay.
The Late Show starring Joan Rivers premiered on Oct. 9, 1986 at 11 p.m., a half-hour before Carson. Her guests were David Lee Roth, Pee-wee Herman, Elton John and Cher. John, Cher and Rivers sang “The Bitch is Back.” Rivers beat Carson in the ratings in New York and San Francisco.
“The Fox show, even before we went on the air, was a nightmare,” Rivers said. Her husband, manager and executive producer, Edgar Rosenberg, constantly fought with Fox executives Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller. When Rivers refused to fire her husband, Fox fired both of them. Her last show was on May 15, 1987.
Three months later, Rosenberg committed suicide. “He left me with no career and a lot of debt,” said Rivers, who became depressed and bulimic and contemplated suicide herself.
Then Rivers worked. She was the center square on Hollywood Squares (1987-89) and hosted a daytime talk show (1989-93) for which she won an Emmy. In 1994, she was nominated for a Tony Award for playing Lenny Bruce’s mother in Sally Marr … and Her Escorts. She wrote 12 books, including one about her many plastic surgeries. She peddled her own line of jewelry and clothing on QVC, selling more than $1 billion in merchandise. She was omnipresent on the red carpet of awards shows for E! and later the TV Guide Channel. She won Celebrity Apprentice.
On Jimmy Fallon’s first night as host of The Tonight Show in February, a series of celebrities made cameos, handing him $100 to settle a bet — Robert De Niro, Tina Fey, Seth Rogen, Stephen Colbert … and on and on. Among them was Rivers, making her first Tonight Show appearance since 1986.
A month later, she returned, making jokes about the Holocaust and vagina rings. Fallon held up a black and white photo of Carson and Rivers from that first appearance in 1965. “He said you’re going to be a star,” said Rivers, pointing at Carson in the photo. “It changed my life.”
September 2, 2014
Thirty years ago, Eddie Murphy was the king of comedy. The biggest star in television and movies and an electric stand-up comedian, Murphy’s resume included the revival of Saturday Night Live, three hit movies — 48 Hrs., Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop — the Grammy-nominated comedy album Eddie Murphy and the HBO stand-up special Delirious. He was 23 years old.
This is Eddie Murphy, comedy prodigy, in 1984:
January 14-February 25 | SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
By the end his four-year run on Saturday Night Live, Murphy was just honoring his contract. He was paid $300,000 for the season — twice what he made the previous year — for about half the work. Murphy taped 11 sketches during one long night in mid-September 1983, so his in-season commitment would be less.
The superstar wasn’t happy — and it showed. Murphy showed up hours late for read-throughs and rehearsals. If he didn’t like a sketch, he said: “This is shit. This isn’t funny.” Sometimes, in read-throughs, he mumbled or whispered his lines. Once, he slid underneath a table and read, inaudibly, from there.
Murphy didn’t need SNL any longer. He had a $15 million deal with Paramount Pictures and an entourage.
But there were highlights: “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” “The Gumby Story,” “Impersonating Jerry” and “Firing Line,” a winning parody of conservative William F. Buckley’s interview show. Robin Williams played the stuffy Buckley, Murphy a doctor of letters. The subject was the flammability of black entertainers in the 1980s, two weeks after Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial.
July 20 | BEST DEFENSE
Dudley Moore made a bad movie. Eddie Murphy couldn’t save it. Moore played a bumbling army engineer who designs a new tank, and Murphy, well, wasn’t even in the first version. Best Defense tested so poorly with audiences that the producers re-worked it, creating a part for Murphy. He filmed about 15 minutes worth of scenes, none of them with Moore. But Paramount promoted the movie as a Moore-Murphy picture anyway.
VINCENT CANBY, The New York Times | It really isn’t easy to make a movie as mind-bendingly bad as Best Defense. It takes hard work, a very great deal of money and people so talented that it matters when they fail with such utter lack of distinction. … Best Defense doesn’t even make sense as a movie.
September 14 | 1984 MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS
Murphy and his fellow Saturday Night Live alum Joe Piscopo presented the night’s final award: Video of the Year. But first, Murphy introduced Joe Thomas, “the man that’s responsible for all the confetti.”
September 26 | THE JOE PISCOPO SPECIAL
Murphy was in two sketches in Piscopo’s HBO special, including “New Jersey Vice.” They fell “rather flat,” said The New York Times.
December 5 | BEVERLY HILLS COP
Sylvester Stallone was originally the lead in Beverly Hills Cop, but he re-wrote the action-comedy, removing the comedy. The producers passed. Stallone’s version became Cobra. Murphy’s became iconic.
Murphy plays Axel Foley, a Detroit detective who goes undercover in Beverly Hills to solve his friend’s murder. Being undercover allowed Murphy to impersonate a writer for Rolling Stone, a flower delivery man, the gay lover of villain Victor Matlin and a customs inspector. It was virtuoso character work.
RICHARD SCHICKEL, Time | Eddie Murphy exuded the kind of cheeky, cocky charm that has been missing from the screen since (James) Cagney was a pup, snarling his way out of the ghetto.
KINGSLEY AMIS, British novelist and poet | An absolutely flawless masterpiece.
Beverly Hills Cop received one Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay for the script by Daniel Petrie Jr. But most of Petrie’s work isn’t in the movie. Murphy and the other actors wrote or improvised most of their dialogue. Bronson Pinchot, as the vaguely foreign Serge, steals an early scene at the art gallery in which Murphy is on the verge of laughter.
The movie was a phenomenon. Beverly Hills Cop debuted as the No. 1 film in the country and remained in the top spot for 14 consecutive weeks. It grossed $15 million in the first week and even more in its second, third and fourth weeks. The final gross was $234 million, making it the second most popular movie of the year behind Ghostbusters.
Murphy and director Martin Brest cemented action-comedies as a popular genre. Brest made the classic Midnight Run four years later. Murphy made funny cops ubiquitous: Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, Rush Hour and 21 Jump Street. Then they were parodied: Loaded Weapon 1 and Hot Fuzz.
Beverly Hills Cop was also the first movie in which the words “In Association with Eddie Murphy Productions” appeared on screen. Paramount was in the Eddie Murphy business.
December 15 | SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
Murphy returned to host Saturday Night Live, and his monologue was a revelatory review of the past year. He said he did Best Defense for the money: “There’s a movie that sucked real bad. … But the money they gave me to do it, y’all would have did Best Defense, too. Best Defense turned out to be the worst movie ever done in the history of anything.”
Murphy wasn’t just the biggest movie star in the country. He was the most candid and the best judge of his work.
Then there’s the part on SNL where the host enthusiastically promises the audience a great show. Murphy deconstructed that.
“Not everything on the show is hysterical,” he said. “I know lots of times they say, ‘we’re going to have a great show.’ They come out, and they lie to you. You sit there, and you see some things that suck. Tonight is the same. Most of the show is good, but they’ll be two or three things that you’ll go — that’s not funny. I want you to be prepared for that.”
Murphy played the old standards: “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” where he makes a Cabbage Patch doll, and a news segment about Christmas toys, where he pulls the pants off a Michael Jackson doll. But the first sketch after the monologue was a short film called “White Like Me” in which Murphy wears whiteface “to experience America as a white man.” It is probably the smartest satire SNL or Murphy has ever done concerning race.
December 17 | LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN
In his first appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, Murphy was funny — and candid.
He said hosting SNL was “scary, because I hadn’t done it in so long, and I was a little nervous. But the show came out OK. ... It didn’t suck like it does sometimes. ... It was just OK.”
He said he was paid more for Best Defense than he was for 48 Hrs. and Trading Places combined: “It had a check like I had never seen before. My morals and principles went right out the window. My career almost went out with it, too.”
Murphy also predated the criticism for his upcoming music album How Could It Be: “I guess your ego goes nuts, and you say, ‘I can do anything.’ ... You have people that work for you, and they’re on the payroll, so they start saying, ‘You can do anything.’ … How does it sound? ‘It sounds wonderful, Ed. You’re a genius. Is my check ready?’”
Letterman: “Eddie, the kind of success you’ve had, in a very short period of time … I never remember this happening to anybody ever before.”
This article originally appeared on Raleigh & Company.