The Comedian Feud That’d Look Different Today: Johnny Carson Vs. Joan Rivers

Battle of the sexes, late-night style.
The Comedian Feud That’d Look Different Today: Johnny Carson Vs. Joan Rivers

The Johnny Carson/Joan Rivers feud was ugly in 1986.  If it happened today?  It might have been a career-ender for all involved.

First, some backstory. Johnny and Joan ascended at around the same time in the early 1960s.  Carson got The Tonight Show gig in 1962, and quickly was on his way to becoming the King of Late Night.  Rivers was playing the clubs at the same time that comics like Woody Allen, Richard Pryor and George Carlin were starting to make their mark.

“I was the last one in the group to break through,” Rivers told The Hollywood Reporter. “Because in those days, they would come down to the Village and look at you for Johnny Carson. I was the very last one of the group they put on the Carson show.”

But she got on in 1965, killing it with her funny stories and prompting Carson to tell the world, “You’re gonna be a star.”

The Ed Sullivan Show

Fast-forward a decade. Rivers was a regular Tonight Show comic and part of Carson’s rotation of guest hosts, along with comics like Bill Cosby, David Brenner, and Garry Shandling.  Each of those guys went on to their own shows of one type or another, leaving Joan as Johnny’s permanent fill-in host by 1983.

So far, sort of so good.  Rivers was now a star but resented being the only one of Carson’s fill-in hosts not to get a bigger gig as a result.  As for Carson?  His relationship with Rivers was like it was with many others -- aloof, distant, chilly. It was about to get worse.  

Carson Entertainment

With Carson about to retire, NBC started putting together a list of possible heirs to the throne. Despite Joan’s permanent guest-host status, her name wasn’t even on the list of possibilities.  Which made her ready to listen when Fox came calling with an invitation to host her own show. It didn’t hurt that the offer came with ten million bucks.

She took it.  

“The first person I called was Johnny, and he hung up on me — and never, ever spoke to me again,” said Rivers. “And then denied that I called him. I couldn’t figure it out. I would see him in a restaurant and go over and say hello. He wouldn’t talk to me.”

If that happened today?  The social media battle would be on.  Joan would let fly with tweets like:

I think it was a question of “I found you and you're my property.” He didn't like that as a woman, I went up against him.  (Actual quote)

And Carson would no doubt clap back with his take on women in comedy: 

Women comics are a little aggressive for my taste. I'll take it from a guy, but from women, sometimes, it just doesn't fit too well. (Actual quote)

Carson, in particular, would look like a complete a-hole.  Rivers was right -- Carson was treating her like property rather than someone who had filled in for him for 18 years. And his view about funny women in general?  “I mean, if a woman comes out and starts firing one-liners, those little abrasive things, you can take that from a man …”  

Yeesh! Carson’s words today would be … problematic.  In 1986, his cold shoulder to Rivers just seemed like sour grapes.

“And I was put up against him,” said Rivers. “In the press, he said, ‘She didn’t call me, and she was so terrible.’ When you’ve told the truth and you read a lie, there’s nothing you can do about it. To this day, I’m very angry about that. Don’t f—in’ lie. You’re making, what, $300 million a year? What are you talking about?” 

Like Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, it’s not hard to imagine the online mobs taking up sides, each finding reasons to villify the other side.  And who is coming out looking good in the Depp/Heard trial?  Fair to say that both of their careers will be in great need of repair.

But even without today’s media climate, the feud took a personal toll, at least on Rivers.

“Looking back,” said Rivers, “and I never like to say it, the Carson breakup hurt me a lot.”

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Top image: Carson Entertainment Group

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