Hollywood is the land of second chances. No matter what awful transgression a celeb has committed, most of the time, there’s nothing that a well-timed public apology, lengthy trip to rehab, or expensive, lavish gift can’t smooth over for both the industry and the general public.
But as Joan Rivers learned, there was an exception to that rule: Johnny Carson. For decades, the longtime Tonight Show host was one of American’s most beloved entertainers, and the closest thing that Hollywood had to a Godfather. Cross him, and you’d never work in that town again.
Rivers—who died on Thursday at 81—did just that in 1986, when she bolted her plum gig as Carson’s permanent Tonight Show guest host to host her own late-night talk show on Fox, then a fledgling fourth-place broadcast network. Carson, who had in essence given Rivers her career, was furious that she didn’t consult him before announcing the move. He cut off communication immediately and didn't speak to Rivers again before his death in 2005.
When Rivers was fired from her Fox show a few months later, along with her manager-husband, Edgar Rosenberg, Carson’s coldness toward her reverberated across the industry. Carson never forgave Rivers, even when Rosenberg committed suicide three months after their firing. The host permanently banned Rivers from The Tonight Show (and she remained on the blacklist during Jay Leno's and Conan O’Brien’s reigns as Tonight hosts). Afraid of crossing Carson, much of Hollywood closed its doors to her as well.
Think Oprah Winfrey’s public flaying of disgraced author James Frey, times 10: “My career was in the toilet, I’d lost my Vegas contracts,” she recalled to The Daily Beast in July. “Carson and NBC had put out such bad publicity about me. I was a pariah. I wasn’t invited anywhere. I was a non-person.”
Rivers was so distraught that she briefly considered suicide herself. But instead, she slowly but surely worked her way back into Hollywood’s favor. In 1989, she landed a daytime talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, which ran for five years. In 1994, she made her first awards show red carpet appearance for E! alongside daughter Melissa, launching a surprising new career as Queen of the Red Carpet. And the hits kept coming: She designed her own line of jewelry for QVC, appeared on reality shows like Celebrity Apprentice (she won, of course) and Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, landed memorable TV gigs on Nip/Tuck and Louie, and started a YouTube web series called In Bed With Joan. Meanwhile, she relentlessly toured the country doing standup.
It was an arduous road back, but Rivers did whatever it took. And on Feb. 17 of this year, Jimmy Fallon’s first night as Tonight Show host, Rivers made her first appearance on the show in almost three decades.
Rivers also discovered that once you’ve survived Carson’s wrath, you can survive anything Hollywood can dish out. Who cared if Sharon Stone or Kristen Stewart got offended by her red-carpet quips? So what if people thought she had too much plastic surgery? There was nothing anyone could say about Rivers that the comedian couldn’t say herself—and much, much funnier.
Her death on Thursday brought an outpouring of love from Hollywood, a reaction that would have been unfathomable of in the years following her falling out with Carson.
Rivers is rightfully being lauded for her work as a trailblazer for female comics, as well she should. But her ability to pull off Hollywood’s greatest comeback was equally spectacular. No matter how bleak things may seem in showbiz, her journey after being blackballed by Carson proved that if you have the will, determination and talent, it’s always possibly to ride out the storm in Hollywood.
Joan Rivers never took her career for granted again. “With comedians, you’re as good as your last joke,” she explained to The Daily Beast of her decision to keep up her relentless workload until the very end. And in every sense of the word, she had the last laugh.