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Joan Rivers Had a Genius Musical Ear

Joan Rivers was an OG when it came to booking musical guests for her talk shows.
September 6, 2014, 1:00pm

Joan Rivers died this week at the age of 81, leaving behind an unparalleled comedic legacy. But her tenure as a talk show host—from fall 1986 through spring 1987 on Fox's "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" and later on the early 90s daytime talk show "The Joan Rivers Show"—also led to some rather iconic (and infamous) musical performances.

Whether because Fox was so new—or because nobody else would have some of these acts—Rivers managed to get away with some pretty subversive stuff on "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers." But even when she cleaned up for the more conservative daytime crowd, she didn't lose any edge—bringing in infamous NYC club kids for an interview (and fashion show) or highlighting the Madonna impersonator Viva Sex right after "Justify My Love" made headlines.


On either show, the caustic wit for which she became known wasn't evident during her interviews with either unfamiliar bands or cultural misfits. Even when faced with the weird or strange, Rivers didn't condescend; she genuinely seemed interested in their artistic motivations and what made them tick. And even when some acts tested her patience—see below—she reacted with humor, grace and self-deprecation.

Beastie Boys

The hands-down musical highlight of the short-lived "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" was this January 15, 1987, performance by a very-young (and, judging by their interview, perhaps very drunk) Beastie Boys. Pretty much everything about this video is amazing–from the band playing up the slightly ironic tone of "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" with scantily-clad woman writhing around a burned-out junkyard car to Rivers' ability to hold her own with the bratty Beasties (sample question: "How'd you all three get together—Julliard?"). Above all, she refused to coddle them. During the band intro, she mistakenly called the LP

Licensed To Kill

—and after being told from offstage it was

Licensed To Ill

, she immediately recovered from her gaffe with a hearty laugh: "That's a stupid name for an album! You should've called it

Licensed To Kill

—you would've gone platinum in 4 weeks."


Rivers' second-most-famous musical coup was booking Gwar as part of "Rock On The Wild Side" week on "The Joan Rivers Show" (tagline: "Too hot for MTV!"). After dubbing them "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on LSD" and cheerfully admitting she didn't understand their shtick, she then went on to have an entirely entertaining conversation with the band—who were clearly playing up the absurdity of the situation, culminating in a faux-emotional moment involving Oderus Urungus talking about his famed 1990 arrest.

Public Enemy

Soon after the release of


Fear Of A Black Planet

, Public Enemy appeared on The Joan Rivers Show and performed an incendiary version of "Brothers Gonna Work it Out." Notable also for Flavor Flav having the chance to say, "Yeahhhhhhhhhhh, Joan!" just before the commercial break.

Wendy O. Williams

The late Plasmatics frontwoman pulled no punches on her late show appearance. For a performance of the

Kommander Of Kaos

track "Goin' Wild," she started the song by sawing through a stage setup with her usual chainsaw; a censored run-through of the equally raucous "(Work That Muscle) F*ck That Booty" also surfaced.

The Mission UK

Touring behind their debut LP,

God's Own Medicine

, cult UK goth merchants The Mission somehow got booked on "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" in May 1987. After playing "Severina," Rivers very sweetly gave frontman Wayne Hussey a bottle of nail polish for touch-ups.

Ozzy Osbourne

Years before "The Osbournes" made them TV darlings, Ozzy and his brood—including 5-year-old Jack and 6-year-old Kelly—appeared on a Father's Day special spotlighting rocker dads. The kids appeared wiggly and bored with the 10-minute interview, although their answers are undeniably adorable.

Dread Zeppelin

Yet another segment from Rivers' "Rock On The Wild Side" week, featuring velvet-clad Tortelvis and loincloth-wearing Butt-Boy (who was called "Butt-Mon" for the duration of the show). Rivers seemed genuinely interested in (if a bit perplexed by) the band's deal. At one point, Tortelvis asked, "Do we look silly or something?" and she very diplomatically reassured: "You look like any of my neighbors."

A segment on dealing with "Teens and Heavy Metal"

The typical parents-worried-about-their-weird-kids segment, perfectly summed up by the caption for one of the supposed renegades: "John Galvin, Heavy Metal Teen."

Jim Rose Circus

Daytime TV loves its perceived freak shows. Naturally, Jim Rose Circus (who toured with Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and as part of Lollapalooza) was a perfect booking for her show.

Hüsker Dü

At the tail-end of their career, Hüsker Dü appeared on Rivers' late show (along with an 85-year-old marathon winner and actor Ian McKellan) and performed "Could You Be the One?" and "She's a Woman (And Now He is a Man)." Even during an interview with Rivers, the band couldn't get away from questions about what signing with a major label meant for them.

Elton John

"I have a song that I think would be very appropriate to do on the show," John quipped, before launching into "The Bitch Is Back"—which featured Joan at the piano enthusiastically singing along and a late-song cameo by Cher.

The Cult

After a typically flashy and metallic take on "Lil' Devil," a slightly bashful Ian Astbury received a call from his dad to wish him a happy birthday.


Just look at all that hair Bret Michaels had!


You should really follow Annie Zaleski on Twitter - @anniezaleski.


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