June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

Joan Rivers is looking oddly like Max Headroom. Two nights have passed since she was fired as hostess of The Late Show, her talk program that premiered on the new Fox Broadcasting Company last October, and she’s throwing a party for her staff and crew at Hollywood’s Columbia Bar & Grill, a B-list celeb hangout. Standing on a chair and addressing the troops one last time, Rivers, 53, seems most Maxlike, applauding the room with that strange, mechanical, seal’s gesture of hers, as if she were programmed to bang her hands together whenever she faces a crowd. “I just want to say that this has been the most exciting year of my life,” Joan tells her faithful. “The rest of my life people will say, ‘You had a great show.’ And I’ll say, ‘Damned right I did.’ I enjoyed every night of this.”

Would that most of her TV audience could say the same. The Late Show started out eight months ago with robust ratings and a glittering guest list featuring the likes of Cher, Elton John and David Lee Roth. By the time Fox Broadcasting finally pulled the plug, the Nielsens had sunk from 4.2 to a sorrowful 2.1, and the guest lineup of off-brand celebrities and eccentrics made it seem that only the gong was missing.

What went wrong? To cite Murphy’s Law, whatever could. “We disagreed on the direction the show would take from the very beginning,” says Fox Broadcasting president Jamie Kellner. “There has to be one person, the producer, who has a vision of what the show is. When you have a talent like Joan Rivers who is used to doing her own show, it’s very hard for her to participate in a joining of ideas.”

It’s even harder when her husband is executive producer. The show had a nominal producer, Bruce McKay, but he was overridden by Edgar Rosenberg, 58, the diminutive, overweight foil for Joan’s jokes over the past 21 years. According to insiders, Edgar, who’s produced many of Joan’s projects, ran a tight ship—much in the style of Captain Queeg. “There was hardly anyone who worked there that he didn’t manage to alienate,” says one former staffer. Indeed, he didn’t hesitate to chew out the crew for major and minor mishaps. Once he blocked an employee from carrying a glass of ginger ale into Rivers’ dressing room. “Put that down before you go in there,” he growled. “This isn’t a country club!” Few who worked on the show will forget the aftermath of a dull Hulk Hogan interview. According to the oft-repeated story, Edgar and Joan surrounded the staffer responsible for the segment, both waving fingers at him in stereo fury.

Then there was the ongoing soda machine crisis. When The Late Show premiered to heady ratings, Fox provided free soft drinks for workers. But when the Nielsens took a nosedive, the company installed a pay-as-you-go soda machine. Just as Queeg was obsessed with his strawberries, so did Edgar fret about the insult symbolically embodied by the damned soda dispenser. In fact, when The Late Show’s ratings briefly revived in January and Fox executives presented Joan with a cake, Edgar was unable to forgive or forget. Ignoring a clear kiss-and-make-up gesture, Edgar inspired nervous giggles by dryly asking, “Does this mean you’ll remove the soda machine?”

But Joan herself is hardly blameless in her fall from TV grace. She helped seal her doom by changing her style. As a fill-in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, she had been the bitchy queen of late night whose humorous bark left bite marks. On her own show, under pressure to keep warm bodies in the guest chair, she turned into an ear-nibbling sycophant, as indiscriminate with her affections as the legendary Heidi Abromowitz. The more fatuous her guests, the more utterly fabulous Joan seemed to find them. It was hard to believe this was the same tough interviewer who once reminded Tonight Show guest George Peppard that his ex-wife accused him of hitting her with a frying pan. An astute judge, former NBC programming chief Fred Silverman, says, “As the dash of Tabasco sauce on The Tonight Show she was great. But when she was on every week it was like eating a meal with six courses—and it’s all whipped cream. People don’t want to see a nice Joan Rivers.”

A pity viewers couldn’t see what was happening off-camera. During one memorable production meeting, Joan referred to L.A. Rams running back Eric Dickerson, a guest she’d just fawned over, as “my good friend what’s-his-name.” During that same meeting she called Charles Nelson Reilly a “bore.” Yet she had her assistant call Reilly, telling him that she was “absolutely livid” about a Wall Street Journal story that suggested she was fed up with interviewing such minor celebs as Reilly.

Once, during a commercial break before Jill Ireland was to come on, Rivers picked up the book Ireland was promoting about her recent mastectomy. She examined the picture of Ireland on the book cover, then—in full view of the studio audience—did a gross impersonation of the pose.

Perhaps the most crucial element in Rivers’ downfall was the problem that developed with guest bookings. Some staffers blame the dismal lineup on Edgar’s poor taste, but The Late Show was clearly victimized by the talk show guest famine. “One of the reasons The Tonight Show is now 60 minutes long,” Silverman points out, “is that Johnny Carson said he couldn’t get enough good guests. They just aren’t around.” In Rivers’ case, the dearth of guests was abetted by a vicious circle: When the ratings fell, top celebs became reluctant to appear; that made ratings drop even further. By March, Fox was desperate. Luckless Bruce McKay was replaced as producer by Jo Ann Goldberg, who took over Edgar’s duties. While Goldberg appreciated the Mel Gibsons, she felt Joan was especially effective with the “civilians”—TV-speak for non-showbiz types. Hence such guests as the expert on sex among household pets.

Ultimately—to the silent, on-air delight but official “no comment” of rival Carson—Joan’s show just didn’t work. Maybe nothing else would have worked either. “Fox is a weak network,” says Silverman. “If that show were on NBC at 11:30 they’d probably double the ratings. Anything they put on that Mickey Mouse network is going to be disadvantaged.” Fox is asking for patience. “Very few shows have come out of the box working,” says Kellner. “Letterman didn’t. Our show will evolve.” Under The Late Show’s new format, the band (including the Tramp, saxophonist Beverly Dahlke-Smith) will stay, the assistant-heavy staff will be pared down, and the program will be custom-produced around different guest hosts, like George Carlin, Suzanne Somers and Buck Henry. One of the guest hosts might be Rivers, hopes Kellner. “It would be good for ratings and good for her.”

The lady herself, who’s negotiating that very point, isn’t certain she’ll be back. Between kissing her party guests goodbye, dotting their cheeks with blood red lipstick, Rivers says that one of her next definite gigs will be “a command performance in London for the Queen.” Does she feel she’s peaked? “I’m always peaking,” she replies.” The Late Show was just another step. It’s a step the way Second City was a step, the way hosting Carson was a step.” What her next step will be isn’t known (ditto the settlement of her $10-million, three-year Fox contract). But at least for the near future, when Rivers asks the question, “Can we talk?” the answer will have to be a highly qualified one: Maybe. But not on your own TV show.

—Written by Jack Friedman, reported by Jeff Yarbrough and the L.A. Bureau