Can we talk? A discussion of gender politics in the late-night comedy career of Joan Rivers
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Television has often been considered a safe haven for female performers, especially comedians. But in fact, women have often been marginalized – narratively and institutionally – within the medium of television. While there has been a promising increase in the number of creative and professional opportunities afforded to women in TV, there is one arena in which women have historically been, and continue to be, excluded: late-night comedy. As the first female late-night talk show host, Joan Rivers is central to the history of broadcast television and American comedy. While some (but not much) work has centered on Rivers’ impact as a comedian, little of this research has contextualized her career through the industrial frameworks of late-night broadcasting. From starting out as a standup comedian, to becoming Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host in the 1980s, to acrimoniously splitting with Carson and NBC for the opportunity to host her own late-night program, Rivers creatively performed her gender in order to differentiate herself as the singular female host in late night. From a feminist media studies perspective coupled with a historical analysis of Rivers’ professional trajectory in late-night comedy, this thesis will uncover the systemic, personal, and gender-specific factors that contributed to Rivers’ initial success, yet ultimate exile from late night.