Wed, 02/08/2017

Johnny vs. Joanie: A Tale of Two Talk Show Hosts

Joan Rivers

The Invasion of Grenada, the Falklands War, the Soviet-Afghan conflict. These are some of the events that come to mind when one considers the wars of the ‘80s. You may also remember the hard fought cola wars, which pitted America’s favorite TV dad against its biggest pop superstar. That one ended ugly. But I will forever remember what had been the opening salvo and precursor to what would eventually become known as “The Late Night Wars”- fired across the bow of none other than Johnny Carson. The ultimate goal was to do something that no one had been able to do in the 24 years leading up to it, or, it can be argued, has been able to do in the 31 years since: dethrone Carson as the King of Late Night. It was also the story that sparked my interest in eventually wanting to know as much as I could about broadcasting history and the personalities who made it all happen.

I could not believe when I got home from school and heard the news that day. On Tuesday, May 6, 1986, Joan Rivers, who’d been Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on The Tonight Show for several years running, and whom Carson had discovered in 1965, had announced she was starting her own late night talk show on the then-fledgling Fox Broadcasting Company. There was a problem. A very big problem for Joan, as it turned out. The news had leaked to Johnny Carson before Joan Rivers could speak to him about it. And when Joan Rivers attempted to call him, he hung up on her!

Hung up on her? How was this possible? People in show business didn’t fight. They were all one big happy family. Ask Sammy Davis, Jr.! Also, Joan had just appeared with Johnny a week earlier to promote her autobiography, “Enter Talking.” She wore the very same dress and hairstyle she’d donned in 1965, and they were great together. You could see the affection. You could always sense that Carson found Rivers hysterical, and was proud of his role in her career. She’d just been guest hosting for him four days before. And, after all, I didn’t remember Carson being upset with David Brenner, or any number of others, when they struck out on their own. Why was this one different? I never really bought the “lack of courtesy call” explanation.

I didn’t know who Joan Rivers was until I saw her host Saturday Night Live in 1983. I was a little kid at the time, but I was precocious when it came to television. There was something about her personality that completely captivated me. From then on, every time she guest-hosted The Tonight Show, I made to sure set my top loading VCR to start taping an hour early (I taped David Letterman nightly) to catch Joan Rivers. In those years, she was one of the great talk show hosts of all time. Her monologues were hysterical, and her interviews with celebrities like Boy George were often headline-making and usually memorable. Johnny still may have been the gold standard, but Joan Rivers actually was “Must See TV” ten years before it became NBC’s slogan.

The evening of Johnny-hanging-up-gate, Joan Rivers was scheduled to be a guest on Late Night with David Letterman. I’d been looking forward to it because I’d never seen her with Dave before. I tuned in to see Dave complaining that Joan had cancelled on them, which he did not understand because she was across the hall from studio 6A at 30 Rock doing NBC’s local newscast Live at Five. Late in the show, Joan Rivers did a quick walk-on, hugged Letterman, and exited. It would be 16 years before she appeared on David Letterman’s stage again. 28 before she would again appear on The Tonight Show.

The next day in school, it was all I could talk about. “Why would anyone want to discuss anything else?” I wondered. Eventually, my English teacher Mrs. Jailer disabused me of this notion. “John, I really just don’t care about any of this.” Well. Ok. BUT HOW COULD YOU NOT? In the months leading up to Rivers’ debut on FOX’s The Late Show, Johnny Carson never mentioned her name in public. Not once. But it seemed like the only thing Joan Rivers wanted to talk about, which I’m sure irritated Carson to no end. She would claim to have seen a “secret list” of possible Carson replacements in the event of his retirement, and her name was nowhere to be found. She would also point out at every opportunity that her ratings when she guest hosted were higher than Carson’s (actually only true if you averaged in Carson’s Monday night repeat.) Joan, it seemed, was completely devastated by his reaction. Johnny, given his lack of public comment, appeared to care less about the matter than even Mrs. Jailer.  

This was the first time I’d ever been interested in the goings on behind the scenes in television. It piqued my interest in the history of television and radio, and prompted me to devour books about Carson’s hero Jack Benny, and his Tonight Show predecessors Jack Paar and Steve Allen. I wound up minoring in broadcasting history at Emerson College, and still have somewhat more than a passing interest in the subject. I studied Bill Carter’s two books on late night television like The Torah. Though, I think he’d do well to write a prequel to cover the Rivers/Carson matter. It would be sort of like “The Hobbit” to “The Late Shift’s” “Lord of the Rings.”

That October, I watched the long anticipated Late Show with Joan Rivers debut, and… well opening night jitters. Give her another night. Ok, a week for things to settle in. But, alas, something happened. It just wasn’t the same. Joan wasn’t the same. Maybe she worked better in smaller doses. More likely, it seemed to me, was that she needed a Fred de Cordova. She was lacking a seasoned executive producer to guide her, and make the show flow better, and tell her when to tone it down. It’s no secret that Joan’s husband Edgar Rosenberg was not quite up to the task of producing a nightly talk show. He’d been a fine manager for Joan, but he was doing her no favors at Fox. Sagging ratings and ugly battles with Fox Chairman Barry Diller led to the show ending on May 15, 1987, a year and a week after the news of the show first broke.

To me, Joan Rivers was never again as great as she was as guest-host of The Tonight Show. I think she realized it on some level, as she never stopped talking about how Johnny Carson broke her heart. Late in her life, she taped herself talking to Johnny,” and just months before her death got to make a cameo on Jimmy Fallon’s first Tonight Show. She stuck around just long enough to see herself become a full-fledged legend.

In that 1986 season, Carson was victorious once again, and would remain so until he stepped down, and all hell broke loose. Once again I found myself enthralled by the drama - this time of David Letterman demanding to be let out of his NBC contract when The Tonight Show was given to Jay Leno in June of 1991. The Leno vs. Letterman drama played out for two years before it was announced that Dave was going to CBS and Jay was staying at NBC. And, of course, there was the Conan/Jay battle of 2010. Will Stephen Colbert switch time slots with James Corden over at CBS? Stay tuned. But I don’t think any of it matched the shock, the drama, or the pathos of Johnny v Joanie. There was a death (Edgar Rosenberg) and a reconciliation (Rivers and Barry Diller eventually made buckets of money for each other on QVC). It was all positively Shakespearean, and I remain hooked.

For more juicy stories of television’s greatest feuds, search our collection.

- by John Dalton