The Modest Pioneer

Women comedians, throughout the years have struggled with finding their spotlight on a stage where society refused to acknowledge their talent. Any google search of “top comedians” would lead someone to myriad pictures of men; once again proving the women are considered lesser than in that particular brand of entertainment. Yet, there are many successful “funny” women who have broken the stereotype that “women aren’t funny” such as Tina Fey, Roseanne Barr, and Sarah Silvermen. Sadly the comedy field that seems to have an outweighing number of men versus women, was once hardly a competition at all. Men ran the industry when it first found its way into the homes of American families. Women through the decades had their share of success in the Man- run industry, such as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. But one woman’s comedic career was able to find a way to cross over decades lasting more than 40 years. Joan Rivers started off as a pioneer for future  female comedians,  while she herself continued the faces the trials of sexism in America. She used her comedy to not only make the audience laugh, but to open up the conversation; she challenged the country and made the viewer’s go home and think about everything they had laughed about.  Joan paved a pathway for those that came after her by not holding back what was on her mind. Her comedy was controversial, yet she used it to create a deeper meaning for her audience to hear and was always relevant to what was happening around her.

To Joan, comedy was just a way to make ends meet while she looked for work as an actress. After being kick around the in dramatic arts, comedy became Joan River’s way of saying “You’re not going to break me, or get to laugh at me.” (20/20)  The pure idea of a Women starring in her own comedic act was not unheard of, when she began in the 1950’s, but looked at as controversial. In a time period where women were continuously taught to be inferior towards the men in society. Her comedy was a reflection of the fear that women would break the gender roles society was attempting to keep. Through advertisements and the advancement of technology America would recreate the gender roles, completely infantilizing women. Ladies were often shown as inferior to the man and extremely one dimensional and ultimately a joke. Joan refused to be in the lower end of the punchline and used America’s stereotypes within her acts.

As her comedic career was kicking off she pitched to herself to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 7 times before she was finally put on the show. Joan Rivers eventually stated the producers thought she was “too rough, too wild, and talked about things a woman shouldn’t be talking about” (BIO). Although Joan was not the only women of comedic nature during her time, her act was rowdy, loud, and unapologetic, everything America feared ladies young and old would be. One of her earliest acts includes her making fun of the double standards between men and women, stating if women weren’t married by the age of 30, they are an old maid. However a man could be 90-years-old and still considered “a catch” (IFC films). Her jokes would range from topics how men and women date to briefly talking about the equal pay act. The audience reacted in laughter because she had turned the truth into something funny. Johnny Carson used her controversial popularity and kept inviting her back to his show; and eventually made her the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show. Joan was the first and only person, woman or man to ever be given that position.

With her growing popularity, Joan would travel the country to do her own comedy shows, and would always change her act to whatever the current events were on the time. Even though the hippie counter-culture started a sexual revolution among the young, Society remained in their conservative beliefs about sex; it was dirty and never to be talked about, particularly by women. They had to remain clean and under the impression that they were sexually naïve, even when they were pregnant. Women weren’t allowed to talk about their pregnancies, but instead would say they were “ Expecting” In 1967 Joan Rivers appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. She walked out in an oversized babydoll dress so there was no sign of her pregnancy with her daughter Melissa. Without mentioning she was having a baby, Joan made fun of herself and her current situation by simply saying she soon will be surrounded by the “ pitter patter of little feet,” making jokes about her new addition to her family. By this being a controversioal statement it emphasizes the naivety and ignorance America was trying to keep the general public.  In an ABC interview Joan talks about how unheard of that was at the time, but she pushed the boundaries and left nothing unsaid or undone.

Always on top of the latest news, Joan made sure her comedy was modern to keep people laughing. So as she continued on through the years as the permanent guest host of the Tonight Show and the world continued to grow away from the perfect household of the 50s. Her comedy would continue to reflect the world around her, with the growth of the feminist theory, and sexual revolution she started to be more open about her sex life and her hatred of the housewife stereotypes ( US news). Throughout the 70s and 80s, her acts would be more controversial, but still just as popular. She was no longer what society would call young and beautiful, was the poster girl for plastic surgery yet Joan talked openly about her sex life, and used her body and foul language to enhance her persona. Her jokes would often include how ridiculous it was for girls to be told men want a girl who can cook and clean, and held nothing back when she talked about men wanting nothing but sex. They country was becoming more aware of the problems they had been ignoring and Rivers had no problem pointing out when America was doing something wrong. She didn’t stop pushing the boundaries of what her next punchline could be just because America was becoming more of an accepting country. But Joan knew far too well the fight to end sexism and gender roles was far from over.

Like most of the entertainment industry, the world of late night television was run by men. For nearly 20 years Ms. Rivers would make frequent appearances on The Tonight Show and was beloved by a myriad of viewers. In 1986, Fox offered Joan a late night talk show her own; she was to be the first woman who had her own show on late night television. The show would air in October of that year and would be competing against The Tonight Show.(IFC films) Full of excitement, Joan called Carson to tell him about her own show and as a response he hung up the phone and never spoke to her again. To Carson, Joan was his star, he created her, and he had felt betrayed that she would make her decision instead of discussing it with him first. Fueled with anger, he had her blacklisted in the industry, even banning her from ever returning to The Tonight Show. The ban would remain honored by Carson’s next two successors. Joan who was at one point at the top of the comedic world was “put in her place” by a man. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers would only last 7 months, and then following the  The fall of Joan’s career was exceedingly similar to how women were treated still even 20 years after the beginning of her career. Women of America, from the end of 1960’s into the 1980’s began the rapidly popular Feminist Theory movement. And while they refused to fall back into the housewife box, sexism remained extremely prevalent in America. Joan Rivers, the much beloved female comedian, had again become a victim of the USA’s misogynistic way of thinking. The industry was not ready to embrace a successful funny woman.


Throughout her career, multiple women, including successful comedians such as Kathy Griffith and Ellen DeGeneres would praise Joan opening the doors and being the pioneer women needed. With her having that fearless personality onstage she made it so other women who dream of comedy have a chance. Joan would use comedy again to respond back and say “ Go fuck yourself, I’m still opening the doors”(IFC films). The fight was far from over, and there was still so many people she wanted to help with her comedy. But by crossing her act over decade by decade, she allowed different generations to receive her message about the worlds current views on women and hatred would be. She showed everyone that sometimes the best way to be a pioneer is just to open the eyes of the audience to what’s really happening in the world, no matter what decade.

A Decade of Change for Women.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, n.d. Web. 04 Apr.


“Joan Rivers.” 20/20. ABC. Television.

“Joan Rivers Biography.” A&E Networks Television. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. .

Joan Rivers. IFC Films ;, 2010. Film.