Once she was introduced on-air in 1965, Rivers routinely visited the program and later would officially fill in as host for Johnny Carson – until she was offered a rival show on Fox, triggering a lifelong freeze-out by Carson. She would not again appear on The Tonight Show for 26 years.
It took current host Jimmy Fallon to welcome Rivers back to the program in March. Thursday night, only hours after her death, Fallon touchingly remembered the 81-year-old and her triumphant return to his studio.
“We had her on our very first Tonight Show, when I took over,” the host recounted.
“She came out, and she came over to me, and she started crying, and gave me a kiss,” Fallon recalled through tears of his own. “It was really emotional and really nice.”
Fallon wasn’t alone in remembering Rivers.
“Talk about guts! She would come out here and sit in this chair and say some things that were unbelievable,” David Letterman, who considered her a force of nature, told his audience.
Seth Meyers, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel, along with ex Sarah Silverman, all paid tribute to Rivers’s wit and devotion to making people laugh.
It was Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson who added a bit of humor to his Joan Rivers remembrance, a touch she would probably appreciate.
“We lost Joan Rivers today, one of the all-time greats. Yes, I know, it’s terribly sad,” Ferguson said. “I just hope when Joan meets the man upstairs, He’s wearing something she can insult.”
• Additional reporting by STEPHEN M. SILVERMAN