Earlier this year, on the first episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Joan Rivers made her first appearance on any incarnation of The Tonight Show in 26 years–lifting a ban from The Tonight Show that had been in place since the mid 1980s. This March, she was a full-on guest for the first time since, and while she was clearly touched, she wasted no time being as edgy as she could possibly be.
The basic story of her ban was repeated ad nauseum whenever her appearance was discussed: Rivers was Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host. When she was offered her own show on Fox, she took the offer before informing Johnny. Carson saw this as betrayal, never spoke to her again, and banned her from The Tonight Show. This ban was continued under Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien (though odds are Conan didn’t have much time to think about it) and was finally lifted under Fallon. After her appearance, she had some choice words (and hand gestures) for Leno.
The full story is, of course, more complex than that–and her talk show itself is almost never mentioned. If you want to know more, you’re in the right place.
How it started:
Since late night TV became Leno vs. Letterman, the role of the guest host has gone the way of the dodo, but it was once a common occurrence. Johnny Carson would often designate guest hosts, ranging from John Denver to Kermit the Frog.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Joan was one of the most popular comedy acts in the country. She was a regular on The Tonight Show, popular on the Vegas strip, and making pretty good bank touring. It was Carson, in fact, who gave her her big break back in the 60s.
Joan was one of Carson’s favorite guests, and he named her his permanent guest host in 1983.
Behind the scenes, though, Joan felt taken for granted. She felt that Carson Productions and high-level executives at NBC were treating her disrespectfully. Years later she also stated that NBC was paying her poorly, describing the money made she made from guest hosting as “peon money.”
There were also big concerns about her future. When Joan started out as Carson’s permanent guest host, her contracts ran the same length as his–that is until 1985, when he signed for two years, but she was only signed for one. She also came across an interoffice memo that listed possible successors to Carson in case he retired, and her name was not on the list.
Fox Broadcasting Company (FBC as it was abbreviated at the time) was in the process of becoming a full-fledged network. News Corp had spent the last year buying affiliate stations, and were planning on creating and broadcasting original content. No “fourth network” had survived up until that point, but Fox was trying (and in the long term succeeded) to be the first. Their planned cornerstone was a new late night show, and they courted Joan to host it.
Joan had been offered talk shows by several networks in the past, each with lucrative contracts, but turned each one down out of loyalty to Carson. But the way she was treated, along with the need for job security and the chance to do a show her own way, led her to negotiate with Fox and make a deal.
She decided not to tell Carson about the deal for two reasons: the first was that she was worried word leaking might void her contract, and the second was that she was always instructed not to go directly to Carson with problems. Carson felt betrayed that Joan hadn’t told her. Joan tried to call him to apologize at least twice, but he hung up and never said a word to her again.
Despite the fact that Rivers was upset, she still had immense respect for Carson. Even after he died, she still said that she owed him everything.
Joan signed a multi-year contract with Fox. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was Fox’s first piece of original programming, and the first late night talk show ever hosted by a woman. Joan planned on having guests she had a difficult time getting on Tonight.
The show would also be broadcast live, unlike Tonight. Indeed, the show was promoted as having “no bleep button.”
Despite the obvious similarities, publicists at Fox repeatedly assured people that they would not be competing with The Tonight Show and would be aiming at a different, younger crowd. Joan made a point early on to never discuss Carson on the show out of both respect and fear.
What it was like:
The show followed the standard talk show format of monologue-interview-musical guest. There were few-to-no sketches; it was mostly talk. The house band was named: “Mark Hudson and the Party Boys, Featuring the Tramp.” Imagine announcing that every night.
The full debut episode is available in full on YouTube:
Here’s a quick overview: Joan is overcome with emotion, thanks everybody, and forgoes the planned monologue. David Lee Roth is her first guest, and if future generations require an explanation of David Lee Roth, show them this interview. Pee Wee Herman is the next guest and comes across as less of a cartoon than Diamond Dave. (Note the face Joan makes when smelling the cologne, it’s quick and subtle but brilliant.) Elton John is the next guest and talks about his marriage (at the time he was referring to himself as bisexual) before performing “The Bitch Is Back” with Joan. Cher makes a cameo at the end of the song, and returns for a semi-generic personal life interview mixed with some advice about fashion and expression. Elton John performs “Your Song” and the show ends.
The entire episode (right down to the audience) is a gigantic time capsule of the mid 1980s. Not to mention the fact that Diamond Dave and Cher give the best fashion advice you’ll get in the event that Uncle Pfeiffer isn’t available.
Though its run was short (lasting from 1986 to 1988), The Late Show did manage to pack in a fair number of notable moments:
–Joan had a mini-feud with actress Victoria Principal dating back to Joan’s time as guest host on The Tonight Show. December 15th, 1986 on The Late Show, Joan had on one of Principal’s Dallas co-stars and decided to give Principal a call on air. When she couldn’t connect, Joan spoke to an operator and gave out Principal’s unlisted home phone number live on air. Principal slapped Joan with a three million dollar lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
— Noted feminist Bella Abzug, who was running for office in New York at the time, appeared on the show in late October 1986. Her opponent, Joseph J. DioGuardi, contacted Fox and asked for equal time, citing the fairness doctrine. He won it and got a spot on the show.
— Joan had a extended interview with Bette Davis. Included in this interview was a talk with Kathryn Sermak, Bette’s beloved personal assistant during her years of ill health. To the best of my knowledge, this is one of (if not the) only interviews of Sermak ever done:
–This exceptionally awkward interview with Hüsker Dü:
–Finally, this delightful interview with Rowdy Roddy Piper that encapsulates the goofiness of 80s wrestling:
Why it ended:
The first reason is perhaps the most obvious: ratings. The Late Show attracted some curiosity at first, but the ratings quickly plummeted. Fox was brand new and thus considered a lesser channel; noted TV executive Fred Silverman referred to it as “a Mickey Mouse network.” With comparatively few stations even showing Fox, getting ratings was exponentially more difficult, but even with that caveat, advertisers still thought it was below expectations. The low ratings also provided a nasty Catch-22: prime guests didn’t want to go on a low-rated show, and people didn’t want to watch a show without prime guests. Some, such as Angie Dickinson, declined invitations to be on The Late Show out of their loyalty to Carson.
The biggest reason they couldn’t get ratings, however, was The Tonight Show‘s iron grip on late night. Fox and Joan learned a lesson that so many had before, and many would continue to learn: Johnny Carson was a ratings juggernaut.
The second (and perhaps more deadly) reason had to do when Joan’s camp and Fox management locked horns behind the scenes.
From the beginning there were disagreements about the direction of the show. As The Late Show went on, Joan adopted a friendlier tone, a stark contrast to the biting, nasty style viewers expected. Fox executives asked Joan to tone down her act–something she resented and it showed. Fans took notice. It was evident as early as her second month on the job, if this fawning interview of William Shatner (one of the easy targets in the acting world) is any indication.
The biggest problem of all, however, was Edgar.Joan’s husband Edgar Rosenberg was serving as one of the producers on Late Night. He ran an unrelentingly tight operation and he would regularly chastise crew members for minor transgressions. An anonymous staff members said that “[t]here was hardly anyone who worked there that he didn’t manage to alienate.” Staff members had horror stories about him, ranging from mocking a staff member who set up a bad interview to a passive aggressive war with management over a soda machine. Years later, Joan admitted that Edgar was a “toxic presence” on the show and fought with network management over “everything from office furniture to money.” By April 1987, Fox Broadcasting President Jamie Kellner ordered Edgar to say out of the show’s daily operations.
Fox executives eventually decided they had enough, and threatened to fire Edgar. When Joan challenged them on that, they both ended up fired.
Joan hosted her last show May 15th, 1987, symbolically wearing the same dress she wore during her first show.
Though Joan was fired, The Late Show itself continued to exist and was hosted by a series of guest hosts, ranging from Lucie Arnaz to Martin Sheen. Mel Brooks guest hosted the show while promoting Spaceballs and came out dressed as Joan. (The whole episode is available online.) Fox expected Joan to join the rotating guest hosts, but she never appeared on the program again. Frank Zappa recorded a show that was ultimately never broadcast–though by sound of it he did his darndest to make it the most Zappa-eseque thing possible.
One of the guest hosts was future talk show host Arsenio Hall. By the time they realized he was a hit, it was too late: The Late Show was set for cancellation to make room for The Wilton North Report. Management gave Arsenio a thirteen week contract to fill the time and he left when it ended to peruse other projects.
When The Wilton North Report crashed and burned (though many of the writers from it would go on to do amazing things), Fox got The Late Show back on the air. It lasted a few more months and was cancelled for the final time in 1988.
Getting fired from the show was the start of what may have been the lowest point of Joan Rivers’ long career. She was unable to return to Carson and was blacklisted by many other late night hosts. Both Joan and Edgar became deeply depressed and felt humiliated, especially Edgar. His depression in particular was exacerbated by a chemical imbalance due to heart medication he’d been taking since he had a heart attack in 1984. Three months after the end of the show (August 1987), Edgar committed suicide. Joan became estranged from her daughter Melissa, developed an eating disorder, and was having financial difficulty.
Eventually, Joan picked herself up, reconnected with her daughter, and got herself back in the game. Several years later, she was back on TV with a new daytime talk show, The Joan Rivers Show, started doing the Oscars pre-show with her daughter, started working for QVC, and the rest is history.
On her last episode of The Late Show, Joan said: “I’ve been in this business twenty-three years, and I’ll be in for another twenty-three years.” Try twenty-seven: Joan is eighty years old, more ubiquitous than ever, just as unapologetically sharp tongued, and shows no signs of slowing down.