Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson: It Was Complicated

Joan Rivers, who died a few months ago, was never my favorite. I know many people who thought she was funny. I didn't.

But a lot of people did.

And they thought so long before she made her first appearance with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show 50 years ago today. In the '50s, she was on the stage. Her first role, as I understand it, was as a lesbian who was infatuated with a character played by Barbra Streisand. She appeared in New York comedy clubs in the early '60s and got a gig writing for Candid Camera — where, thanks to her relative anonymity up to that point, she was both a gag writer and an on–camera participant, luring the unsuspecting into bizarre situations.

She spent some time in front of the camera as well as behind it. When she appeared with Carson 50 years ago tonight, it was not her first time on the Tonight Show. She had been on the program when it was hosted by Jack Paar.

Rivers had lots of irons in the fire, as the saying goes, which was how she lived her life. She was always involved in several projects at once. In the '60s, she also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and she had a part in a movie with Burt Lancaster. For awhile, she even had her own daytime talk show on TV. She had several shows, in fact.

But it was her appearance with Carson that changed the trajectory of her life. He was one of those who thought Rivers was funny, and she made many appearances on his show over the next 18 years — until Carson named her the permanent "guest host" of the show.

Carson was unique in many ways, but one of the most remarkable (I always thought) was the fact that, even when he took time off, he believed his audience deserved fresh material. He refused to run a rerun of one of his old shows. Instead, he would have a "guest host" fill in while he was gone. (Carson always went to England for two weeks in the summer to attend the Wimbledon tennis tournament so that was the plum assignment for an up–and–coming comedian.)

Some of Hollywood's most talented people filled in for Carson over the years, and Rivers did her share. It was a floating assignment, and regular viewers got to see a wide assortment of talent sitting behind Carson's desk whenever he was taking time off. But by August '83, Carson was ready to name Rivers his permanent guest host. That was as good as making her his heir apparent.

But that wasn't how it played out. The Fox Television Network, which was about to go on the air, offered Rivers her own late night talk show. She accepted, and Fox announced it before she could speak to Carson. When she did, she said, Carson hung up on her.

I don't know if that is how it happened or not. I don't know if Rivers wanted to speak to Carson first. If she did, she should have said something to Fox executives and asked them to withhold any statement until she confirmed that she had spoken to Carson. Perhaps she wanted to approach it as her asking for career advice from Carson or perhaps seeking his blessing instead presenting it as a done deal in which he had not been consulted.

Of course, if the Fox executives told her they would keep quiet and then spilled the beans, it was Fox's fault.

However it happened, I know that Carson and Rivers had no relationship in public — or, apparently, in private — after that. According to Rivers, he never spoke to her again.

But it all began 50 years ago tonight when Rivers made her first appearance with Carson on the Tonight Show.