Joan Rivers: Revisiting Her 'Messy' Feud With Johnny Carson

Joal Ryan
·Contributor
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Pictured: (l-r) Comedian Joan Rivers, host Johnny Carson on Ocotber 5, 1976 -- (Photo by: Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Pictured: (l-r) Comedian Joan Rivers, host Johnny Carson on Ocotber 5, 1976 -- (Photo by: Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Joan Rivers outlived Johnny Carson. She overcame the "Carson mess."  

Rivers, who died Thursday at age 81, starred with the Tonight Show legend in the longest-running, most-entrenched battle of the late-night TV wars. The standoff spanned decades and talk-show host regimes. To call it a feud would suggest heated words where, in reality, there were only icy silences.

[Photos: Highlights From Joan Rivers's TV Career]

Here's a look back at the twists and turns that brought Rivers and Carson together, tore them apart, and ultimately led Rivers back to Tonight:

1965: The 31-year-old Rivers performs her first stand-up set on Carson's Tonight Show. Comedy's reigning tastemaker approves; his loyal audience takes note. "I went on his show once, and I was a star," she said earlier this year.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Pictured: (l-r) Joan Rivers, Johnny Carson (host) (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Pictured: (l-r) Joan Rivers, Johnny Carson (host) (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

1983: NBC, reportedly looking to shore up Tonight's audience in advance of the show's latest rival (Thicke of the Night, a syndicated series starring Alan Thicke), locks in Rivers as Carson's first permanent guest host. Rivers, now 50, is a frequent Carson sub, and in her "Can we talk?" heyday. Still, Rivers defers to her mentor. "Nobody could ever match Johnny Carson," she tells The New York Times.

1984: Thicke of the Night is canceled; Carson and Rivers roll along.

1985: In June, Rivers tells TV reporters NBC has a list of 10 potential Tonight Show successors for Carson and that she's not on it; NBC denies there is any such list. In October, 20th Century Fox announces its intent to launch a broadcast TV network.

March 1986: Rivers publishes a memoir of her early career and life-altering Carson debut, Enter Talking.

April 25, 1986: Rivers appears on The Tonight Show as Carson's guest to plug Enter Talking. She wears the same dress and accessories she wore on her first Carson show 21 years earlier. Their segment is warm and amiable. It will be Rivers's final TV appearance alongside Carson.  


May 2, 1986: Rivers, whose NBC contract is due to expire in July, wraps her latest week of Tonight Show hosting duties with guests Mark Harmon, director Roger Vadim (Barbarella) and Wheel of Fortune's Vanna White.  

(Everett Collection)
(Everett Collection)

May 6, 1986: Fox announces its first show: The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers. NBC sends off Rivers with the kiss of death ("We wish her well"), and notes that Carson, in the words of the Associated Press, "learned of plans for the late-night competition from the news media." Rivers says, as she will continue to say through the years, that she called Carson (twice) to tell him the news before it was announced and that he hung up on her (twice). The bad feelings run both ways, apparently. At a press conference, Rivers thanks NBC, not Carson, for her Tonight Show run, and adds, "They should thank me, too. My ratings were good. And they were better than the regular host."

That night, Carson is back at work on Tonight. According to head writer Raymond Siller in a 2010 column for the Wall Street Journal, a decision is made to go radio silent on Rivers. "I'm not gonna get in a pissing contest with her," Carson says.  

Garry Shandling, meanwhile, is tapped to fill in as guest host for the now-banished Rivers.

May 12, 1986: Rivers reportedly cancels a scheduled appearance on the Carson-produced Late Night With David Letterman. "She's just not feeling funny these days," her agent says.

May 13, 1986: Rivers puts in an unscheduled appearance on Late Night. "I just wanted to invite you to the NBC employee party because I don't think I will be going," she tells Letterman. "Bring me back a sandwich." The 90-second cameo is her only appearance on the Letterman-era of Late Night.

Oct. 10, 1986: Rivers ushers in The Late Show and Fox's new network to Elton John's "The Bitch Is Back." (John does the musical honors himself.) In a damning review, the Associated Press notes that Rivers's 11 p.m. show is being carried on half as many stations as Carson's Tonight.

FILE - In this Oct. 30, 1986 file photo, talk show host Joan Rivers, right, talks with guest, first lady Nancy Reagan, during her appearance on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, on Fox TV. The role of female talk-show hosts in late-night TV network history, all 50-plus years of it, can be summed up in two words: Joan Rivers. It takes just another two _ Arsenio Hall _ to do the same for minorities. There's no indication that's going to change in the latest round of musical chairs involving Tonight and Late Night. (AP Photo, Reed Saxon, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 30, 1986 file photo, talk show host Joan Rivers, right, talks with guest, first lady Nancy Reagan, during her appearance on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, on Fox TV. The role of female talk-show hosts in late-night TV network history, all 50-plus years of it, can be summed up in two words: Joan Rivers. It takes just another two _ Arsenio Hall _ to do the same for minorities. There's no indication that's going to change in the latest round of musical chairs involving Tonight and Late Night. (AP Photo, Reed Saxon, File)

March 1987: "According to network standard — ratings — Rivers's show is a flop," the AP judges in a look at The Late Show at the five-month mark. Later, Edgar Rosenberg, Rivers's husband and executive producer of The Late Show, is removed as the program's day-to-day showrunner.

May 15, 1987: Rivers is fired by Fox — only, according to the early spin from the network and her camp, she's not really fired; she's just, you know, not going to host as much. (Seriously, that was the early spin.) But the truth is, she's fired. Her Late Show run lasts seven months.

June 1987: Letterman sympathizes with Rivers's ratings struggles, but says Carson's former guest host handled her Tonight departure "in a graceless fashion... [b]y suddenly turning on NBC and saying unpleasant things about Johnny and The Tonight Show." Rivers, who had never been a Late Night guest prior to her Carson split, is never a Late Night Letterman guest after the split.

[Photos: More TV Stars We've Lost This Year]

Summer 1987: The Late Show goes on without Rivers, and with guest host Arsenio Hall. Hall's emergence is arguably the most significant development in the Carson-Rivers war.

In short order: Hall's appearances boost Late Show's ratings; Hall snags his own syndicated talk show; his syndicated talk show siphons younger viewers from Carson; NBC frets too openly for Carson's taste about Carson; Carson gets back at NBC by abruptly announcing his retirement, to occur in May 1992; NBC, caught by surprise, fumbles the Tonight succession and alienates Letterman, who bolts to CBS in a move that will inspire a whole new game of musical-talk-show chairs. All because, roughly speaking, Rivers was fired and Hall was hired.  

July 1987: With no job prospects offing in late-night TV, Rivers accepts a gig as the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares.

Aug. 14, 1987: Rosenberg commits suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room.

1988: Fox's Late Show, briefly replaced by the even-briefer Wilton North Report, is canceled a second and final time. It lasts two years and is forgotten but for its radioactive fallout.

1990: Rivers, who has reinvented herself as a daytime talk host, wins a Daytime Emmy.

1991: Carson's son Rick dies in a car crash. Rivers says she wrote a condolence note to Carson; Carson never acknowledges the note.

Mid-1990s: With Letterman departing NBC and Late Night, and Carson having retired, the Conan O'Brien-Lorne Michaels era of Late Night begins in 1993. And so does a sort of late-night detente. By 1995, Rivers is welcomed back to NBC late night as an O'Brien guest.

Jan. 23, 2005: Carson dies at age 79. Rivers, now reinvented (again) as a red-carpet maven and reality-TV star, praises her former champion as "the best straight man in the business." Carson and Rivers never spoke after 1986.

Late 2000s: Bygones are finally becoming bygones. Rivers makes her first guest appearance on Letterman admirer Jimmy Kimmel's ABC show in 2007. Two years later, she does her first Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

2010: The big breakthrough. Nearly 20 years into Letterman's CBS run, the Carson disciple finally welcomes Rivers to his Late Show.

Comedian Joan Rivers shares a laugh with Dave when she visits the Late Show with David Letterman Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013 on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS via Getty Images)
Comedian Joan Rivers shares a laugh with Dave when she visits the Late Show with David Letterman Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013 on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS via Getty Images)

On the show, Rivers claims to be carrying the ashes of her late husband, Edgar. "You carry those with you everywhere?" Letterman asks. "Just when I go on late night," Rivers says, "because we were banned for so long, so I like to say, 'Look, we're back.'" Letterman claims there was no ban where his show was concerned; Rivers says OK, but she was never booked — on his show or any late-night show (which seems to have been a bit of comic exaggeration).

What isn't exaggeration: Rivers's note that she's never been invited by Jay Leno to return to The Tonight Show due to, she says, "the Carson mess."

2014: Leno retires for the second and final time from Tonight. With the last link to the Carson era gone and Fallon installed as the new host, Rivers makes her first Tonight appearance in nearly 28 years. The occasion is also the 49th anniversary of her first Tonight appearance. "It's about time," Rivers jokes to Variety. "I've been sitting in a taxi outside NBC with the meter running since 1987."

The year is a watershed one for Rivers and the new-world late-night order: She appears on Seth Meyers's new Late Night show, and makes news for a Late Show bit with Letterman that sees him spoof an interview she cut short with CNN by walking off the set. The best bookend moment, however, is a quiet one: a radio interview Rivers conducts with Henry Bushkin, the longtime Carson lawyer who wrote a memoir of his years with the Tonight Show great (before, incidentally, he was banished, Rivers-style).

It's the ultimate rehashing of a long-ago time that, in the insular, interconnected world of late night TV, was difficult to put in the past tense.