‘The Ed Sullivan Show’: Joan Rivers First Appearance Was Because of a Name Mix Up

by Craig Garrett

Joan Rivers became a late-night host in her own right, but her debut on The Ed Sullivan Show was due to a gaffe. After working as a stand-up and comedy writer for years, Rivers broke through to the mainstream after an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After the appearance, she became fast friends with Carson and a frequent guest on The Tonight Show. She even became the first permanent guest host of the classic TV late show in the 1980s. However, an appearance on Ed Sullivan was credited with helping Rivers win over middle America.

According to Ed Sullivan’s official website, Joan Rivers made her first on-air appearance on the show on May 22nd, 1966. However, she had previously worked on The Ed Sullivan Show as a writer. Rivers was actually the main writer for Topo Gigio, a popular Italian mouse puppet character featured on the program. Still, the main reason for this first on-air appearance was due to a slip-up by Sullivan.

Did Ed say Joan Rivers or Johnny Rivers, producers wondered

The veteran host was supposed to let the audience know that the next week’s guest would be crooner Johnny Rivers. Instead, he told viewers, “Next week, Joan Rivers!” Apparently, Sullivan had his writer, Joan on his mind. Producers of the show decided to run with the mix-up. The following week, Sullivan was introducing Joan. “I was watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson the other night and Joan Rivers came up, she was hilarious! So here is Joan Rivers! You’ll love her.” Following the successful appearance, Rivers became a frequent guest on The Ed Sullivan Show. From 1966 until the show ended in 1971, she was on 21 times.

Joan Rivers went on to be a prolific comedian and household name. After years of guest-hosting The Tonight Show, Rivers launched her own late show. The Late Show with Joan Rivers debuted in 1986 and ran for two seasons. This greatly upset her friend and mentor, Johnny Carson. Carson felt that Rivers should have run the idea of hosting her own competing late show by him before taking the offer. Subsequently, Rivers was banned from Carson’s program for the rest of his run. Out of respect for Carson, late-night hosts David Letterman and Conan O’Brien also never invited Rivers to their programs.

Joan River’s life after Late Night

Despite this, Joan Rivers found success as a daytime talk show host. The Joan Rivers Show ran for five seasons from 1989 to 1993. This led to Joan and her daughter Melissa hosting red carpet events for Entertainment Television. Rivers also had roles in films like the Mel Brooks Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs. She was also the subject of an acclaimed documentary in 2010. Later in her career, she made guest appearances on comedies like Hot in Cleveland and Louie. Rivers passed away in 2014.

Episodes of the Ed Sullivan Show can still be seen on MeTV.