Columbia College Chicago

CITA: Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers

The 2013-14 season of Columbia College Chicago’s Conversations in the Arts lecture series wrapped up at the Film Row Cinema on Feb. 26, as a packed house listened to iconic comedienne, CEO, and television host Joan Rivers tell the story of her remarkable career.

The theme of Rivers’ conversation was reinvention. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, Rivers says she knew “as soon as I could think” that she wanted to be an actress. When her mother took her to see Journey for Margaret, starring Margaret O’Brien, at the Cameo Theater in New York, Rivers said, “I wanted to be an actress—there was no question about it.”

It was this unwavering desire that got her through many tough times. Instead of getting married after high school, as she said most women her age did, Rivers earned her college degree and lived out of her car in New York City, taking whatever work she was able to get. It took seven years before she “made it.” In urging students to stay relentless about following their passions, Rivers recalled that it took good friend Kathy Griffin 21 years to “make it,” and she remembered seeing Seinfeld creator Larry David working as a doorman at the Improv comedy club as he was coming up in the business.

Living in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, Rivers was surrounded by talented up-and-comers yet to catch their breaks: Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Richard Pryor, to name just a few. Rivers’ break came when Bill Cosby recommended her to Johnny Carson, the host of The Tonight Show. Rivers had auditioned for The Tonight Show and been rejected seven times, but it was Cosby’s personal recommendation that got her a spot. After her first show, she recalls, “[Carson] told me, ‘You’re going to be a star.’”

The next morning, her life had changed. She got her own show, she was performing in Las Vegas, and eventually the nascent FOX network asked her to host a new late night show. Tensions between her husband, who was one of the show’s producers, and Fox executives led to an ultimatum that taught Rivers a lesson which she imparted with trademark humor: “You can have no humanity in this business. You must be ready to step on your own mother’s face.” Ultimately, Rivers chose to side with her husband in the dispute, and they were both fired. Her husband committed suicide three months later.

What followed was a difficult stretch. Unable to find work in television or at the renowned comedy clubs she had been performing in, Rivers’ determination to reinvent herself never faltered. She said, “You don’t fold your tent—you find another way in.” She went back to New York, performed at small comedy clubs, and even “cut ribbons at CostCo’s—I just didn’t say no.” She stressed that a comedienne, an actress, or anyone who wants to “make it” in a creative field can’t let personal pride stop them from taking jobs. “Your pride should be in your work,” she said. “Never in yourself.”

Devoted to remaking her career, Rivers would find herself on top again, earning a Daytime Emmy Award for her work hosting The Joan Rivers Show, creating her own line of jewelry for start-up at-home shopping network QVC, and, in 2010, becoming a co-host of the E! network’s #1 show, Fashion Police.

The evening concluded with a Q&A session, during which Rivers teared up when she talked about recently being invited back to Jimmy Fallon’s first night as host of The Tonight Show after 26 years of being barred from NBC late night. She also urged students to “never feel too good to ask for help,” and said, “Wherever you go in life, there will be highs, and there will be lows. Always remember: both pass, so enjoy them while you can.”

After the Q&A, there was a private reception.

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Photos: Jonathan Mathias