In the end, Chris Rock became much more than the answer to a trivia question.
The comedian is a superstar, but on May 15, 1987, he was an unknown, green stand-up comedian making his television debut when he did a set on the last episode of “The Late Show,” Fox’s ill-fated attempt to join the late-night TV landscape with Joan Rivers as host.
Howie Mandel was a guest on that episode, along with Pee Wee Herman and singer Wendy O. Williams, a quartet of performers helping to usher out one pop culture moment, while unknowingly ushering in another in the work of Rock.
It’s well known that Eddie Murphy had discovered Rock and Mandel said the younger comedian made a clutch decision by electing to appear on the final episode of a doomed talk show instead of going the more traditional route of performing on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” which had been the dream for scores of comics, signaling they had arrived.
“It was kind of controversial in the stand-up world. He thought that, or his manager thought that, he would get more hype from being on the last episode of ‘Joan Rivers,’ rather than any episode of ‘The Tonight Show,’ and I come from the era where ’The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ was the end all and be all and the litmus test for professionalism or your career in stand-up comedy,” Mandel told TODAY in a phone interview.
“But I thought that was a real bold move and a real smart strategic move on his, Eddie Murphy’s or his manager’s (part). There was probably more people going to watch the last episode of ‘Joan Rivers’ than any episode at the time of Johnny Carson.”
The “America’s Got Talent” judge says it was a gamble for Rock to introduce himself to the TV viewing public on Rivers’ show, especially when Carson maintained a stranglehold over late-night television.
“The risk was, if I’m going to launch into television, and I’m going to launch into the world, where can I definitely get the most eyeballs?” Mandel said. “And as much as it was a risk to your career by pissing off Johnny, there was no doubt about that night was going to get more eyeballs than Johnny Carson.”
Rock’s appearance has become the stuff of legend in the comedy world, not because it marked his first foray into television, but because the set did not go according to plan. He’s talked about it before, noting how his opening joke didn’t land the way he wanted, so he changed the order of his set, bumping up his closing bit. The problem? He had gone over the set with the producers beforehand, so that the band would know its cue to start playing him off when it heard the final joke. The result was he told his closer early in the set and the band played. Rock stood onstage, looking confused before Rivers called him over to sit down.
“She was waving him over and he was looking like, ‘I’m not finished yet,’” Mandel said.
“I promise you, he did less than half of his prepared material,” he added, calling it “an epic moment.”
Rivers’ show had been beset by problems and low ratings and was canceled less than a year after premiering. Her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, had served as executive producer, but would eventually get barred from the set. He would die by suicide in August 1987. Mandel speaks glowingly of Rivers, saying she got him on “The Tonight Show” when she served as guest host and calling her “probably one of the most instrumental people in my entire career.”
Rivers’ relationship with Carson was irrevocably fractured when she started her own show after having been a guest host for him. Mandel would act as guest host on her late-night show and he says he wanted to support her during the final episode, set against the backdrop of all the drama that had gone along with Rivers’ program.
“Boy, did I learn about the show must go on that day,” Rock told Variety about his appearance on the show after Rivers died in 2014. It’s the kind of comment that wreaks of foreshadowing when you think of Rock continuing on at the Academy Awards this year after Will Smith slapped him.
On Rivers’ show, Rock eventually sat down on the couch and collected himself, doing what comedians do by telling jokes disguised as stories. Mandel said the way he handled himself provided a window into what kind of performer he would become, especially at the Academy Awards.
“It’s kind of in the same way as what happened at the Oscars,” Mandel said. “He was able to compose himself, didn’t really do his act, they got stopped short, and was still able to go through and with all the professionalism and everything that makes him as great as he is on stage, the Oscar was still given out and presented.”
Mandel says you could see a glimpse of the potential and poise during that first TV appearance, even after the set went wrong.
“You saw a tidbit of what it takes to make that happen. And the professionalism, even in his first shot, which was, you know, an audio slap in the face and stop his act, just because he did the wrong joke in the wrong order. That was, like, shell shock in the moment, but come over and still be charming, funny, and launch his career,” he said.
In retrospect, it’s easy to say you could see the budding talent that he possessed on Rivers' show, as he managed to keep going, even after his set was cut short.
“For a moment there he looked bewildered. But he was really funny. And he sat down. That’s the consummate the show must go on,” Mandel said.
It’s a fascinating moment in the annals of entertainment history, one which brings us back to the idea Rock would become nothing more than a footnote lost in the pre-Internet era.
“New comic Chris Rock, one of Eddie Murphy’s New York discoveries, who can be seen in ‘Beverly Hills Cop II,’ offered a promising monologue, but may forever remain a trivia question: What comic made his television debut on this talk-show host’s last program?” California’s San Pedro News-Pilot wrote in its review of the final episode of Rivers' show.
Thirty-five years later, perhaps the better question is on what short-lived late-night program did Chris Rock make his TV debut?
As new to the scene as he may have been, Rock himself seemed to understand the enormity of the occasion in real time.
“This is like a dream. You don’t know. You don’t know how much this is unreal to me right now,” he told Rivers that night after he sat down next to her.
“I want you to remember this when you’re 40. Don’t let it go to your head because you’re very talented. Stay good,” she told him.
Rock never would appear on "The Tonight Show" with Carson. His IMDB page lists him as being a guest on the show with Carson's successor, Jay Leno, 11 times, beginning in 1996. He managed to survive his first TV experience, though, with a story to go along with it, as well as endure an incident that would put his skills on display in a manner similar to what occurred three-and-a-half decades later at the Oscars.
“He remembers that moment, for all the right and wrong reasons,” Mandel said. “If you ask him what his first shot on TV, he remembers, it was ‘Joan Rivers,’ but he also remembers, ‘Oh, my God, what a lesson.’”
This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com for additional resources.