Howie Mandel remembers making his “controversial” TV debut with Chris Rock 35 years ago

In the end, Chris Rock became more than an answer to a trivial question.

The comedian is a star, but on May 15, 1987, a little-known, green stand-up comedian made his television debut when he performed on set on the final episode of “The Late Show,” Fox’s ill-fated attempt to join the late-night television scene with Hosted by Joanne Rivers.

Howie Mandel was a guest on that episode, along with Pee Wee Herman and singer Wendy O. Williams, a quartet of artists who help launch a pop culture moment, while unknowingly ushering in another moment in rock’s work.

Eddie Murphy has been known to discover rock music and Mandel said the younger comedian made the frightening decision of choosing to appear on the final episode of a doomed talk show rather than going the traditional route of performing on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” which was a dream come true. Dozens of comics, indicating their arrival.

Chris Rock, Bee Wee Herman, Howie Mandel help Joan Rivers finish her troubled late night show.Batman Archive

“It was kind of a stand-up world controversy. He thought, or his manager thought he’d get more hype from his participation in the last episode of ‘Joan Rivers’, rather than any episode of ‘The Tonight Show’, and I came from the era when he was In “The Tonight Show with,” Mandel told TODAY in a phone interview, “Johnny Carson was the end of it all and a real test of your career or career in stand-up comedy.”

“But I thought this was a real bold move and a real smart strategic move on the part of Eddie Murphy or his director. There were probably more people going to watch the final episode of ‘Joan Rivers’ than any episode in Johnny Carson’s time.”

The “America’s Got Talent” judge said it was a gamble for Rock to introduce himself to the television audience of Rivers, especially when Carson maintained control of late-night television.

“The danger was, if I’m going to start on TV, and get fired in the world, where can I definitely get the most eyeballs?” Mandel said. “And as much as it was a career risk through Johnny’s displeasure, there was no doubt that that night would have drawn more eyeballs than Johnny Carson.”

Chris Rock
Rock, who was seen here performing in 2008 in New Orleans, would go on to become one of the most famous comedians of his generation.Katina Revels/AFP

Rock’s appearance has become a legend in the comedy world, not because it marked his first entry into television, but because the group didn’t go according to plan. He had talked about it before, noting that his opening banter didn’t land the way he wanted, so he changed his group order, raising the closing part. the problem? He’s bypassed the group with the producers beforehand, so the band knows they’re serious to start playing it when they hear the last joke. The result was that he told his closest ones early on in the group and the band played. Rock stood on the stage, looking confused before Rivers called him to sit down.

“She was waving at him and it was like I wasn’t done yet,” Mandel said.

“I promise, he’s done less than half his prepared stuff,” he added, calling it an “epic moment.”

Mandel says he knew the name Rock, but his work at the time hadn't crossed paths for the first time on The Joan Rivers Show, but he soon became fond of it.  He said:
Mandel says he knew the name Rock, but his work at the time hadn’t crossed paths for the first time on The Joan Rivers Show, but he soon became fond of it. “I loved him from the start,” he said. NBC

Rivers’ show experienced problems and low ratings, and was canceled less than a year after its premiere. Her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, worked as an executive producer, but was eventually banned from the set. He died by suicide in August 1987. Mandel spoke glowingly about Rivers, saying she got him on “The Tonight Show” when she worked as a guest host and calling her “probably one of the most empowered people of my entire career.”

Rivers’ relationship with Carson was irreversibly fractious when she started her own show after being a guest host for it. Mandel has been a guest star on her late night show and says he wants to support her during the final episode, against the backdrop of all the drama that coincided with Rivers.

“Boy, did you know the show had to go on that day,” rocker told Variety of his appearance on the show after Rivers died in 2014. It’s the kind of comment that foreshadows when you consider rock’s continuation at the Academy Awards this year after he slapped him will Smith.

rivers here
Rivers, who appears here on “The Tonight Show” in 1983, had a very successful stint as a guest star for this show before hitting her own show on Fox.NBC

At Rivers’ show, Rock finally sat down on the sofa and pulled himself together, doing what comedians do by telling disguised jokes as stories. Mandel said the way he treated himself provided a window into the kind of performer he would become, especially at the Academy Awards.

“It’s kind of the same as what happened at the Oscars,” Mandel said. “He was able to compose himself, he didn’t really do his job, they just stopped working, they still managed to move on and with all the professionalism and all that makes him as great as he is on stage, the Oscar was still given and given.”

Mandel says you could have seen a glimpse of the potential and the poise during the first television appearance, even after the group failed.

“I saw a lust for what it would take to make that happen. And the professionalism, even on his first shot, which was, you know, a slap in the face and his act stopped, only because he made the wrong joke in the wrong order. It was, like, shock-shock at the moment, but Come on still charming and funny and start his career,” he said.

Photo: Will Smith, right, hits presenter Chris Rock on stage while presenting his Best Documentary Feature award at the Academy Awards Sunday in Los Angeles.
Will Smith slaps Chris Rock on a live-action moment at the Oscars.Robin Beck/AFP – Getty Images

Looking back, it’s easy to say you could have seen the budding talent he had on Rivers’ show that he managed to keep going, even after cutting off his set.

“There for a moment he looked confused. But it was really funny. And he sat down. That’s the perfection the show has to go on,” Mandel said.

It’s a remarkable moment in the annals of entertainment history, one that takes us back to the idea that rock music would never become more than a missing footnote in the pre-Internet era.

New York comedian Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy’s New York find, who can be seen in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” offered a promising one-man show, but it may forever remain a simple question: What comedian made his television debut on this talk show? The Last Host Show?” San Pedro News Pilot of California wrote in its review of the last episode of The Rivers Show.

Chris Rock
Rock, who was seen here performing in 2004, has gone on to have the kind of career that most comedians can only dream of.Douglas Healey/AFP

Thirty-five years later, perhaps a better question is what short-lived night-time program did Chris Rock debut on TV?

New to the scene as he may be, Rock himself seemed to understand the enormity of the occasion in real time.

“That’s like a dream. You don’t know. You don’t know how unrealistic that is to me now,” he told Rivers that night after sitting next to her.

“I want you to remember this when you are in your 40s. Don’t let it go to your head because you are so talented. Stay in shape,” she said.

The rock band did not appear on “The Tonight Show” with Carson. His IMDB page lists him as a guest on the show with Carson’s successor, Jay Leno, 11 times, beginning in 1996. He’s managed to survive his first television experience, with a storyline to go along with it, as well as enduring an incident that would showcase his skills in a way Similar to what happened 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 about 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 contact The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline At 800-273-8255, type HOME to 741741 or go to For additional resources.

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