"I Am Mad and Sad and Feel Attacked"—Joan Rivers Tells the Truth About Why She Left Tonight

By Joan Rivers
May 26, 1986 12:00 PM

The way Johnny found out about my new talk show was horrendous, I wanted to be the one to break the news to him—and had planned to do it first thing Tuesday morning, May 6, the day of the press conference. When I learned the news had been leaked to Johnny on Monday, the day I signed the contracts, I went into shock. All weekend I had been rehearsing and memorizing my little speech, saying, “Johnny, it has nothing to do with you. It’s the treatment I’ve been getting from everybody else.”

Immediately, I telephoned him in Malibu, and his secretary said, “One moment, I’ll put Mr. Carson on.” She came back in a few minutes and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Mr. Carson is not here.” I made a joke. I said, “How come you didn’t know that? His house is totally glass.”

The next morning, before the press conference, I reached him from a wall phone in the Fox makeup room. I said, “Johnny, I…” The phone went click. He had believed the worst without talking to me. In the midst of happiness and optimism, my grief gushed out. Pressing my forehead against the wall, I cried. Almost certainly he and I could never patch this up, could never put a piece of rubber over this split and pretend it had not happened. In that instant, a very old and crucial relationship passed away.

In 1965 I was a 31-year-old groveling outcast who had been struggling through mud up to my waist to break into show business, going through humiliations nobody should have to endure. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I hit on his show—just when everybody else was saying I was too old, that if I was going to hit, it would have happened by now. But Johnny was the one person who said, “Yes, she has talent; yes, she is funny.” He was the first person in power who respected what I was doing and realized what I could become. He handed me my career.

Our personal relationship was curious. We saw each other socially maybe four times since 1972, when I moved to California, and then only in large groups. Our friendship existed entirely on-camera in front of America, and even then, during the commercial breaks, when the red light went off, we had nothing to say to each other beyond “How’s Edgar?”, “Gee, doesn’t the band sound great tonight”—and even the banalities lapsed after 30 seconds, Johnny sitting silent, drumming his pencil on the desk. When the red light went back on, magically we were like twins, winging on the same wavelength. I think we are both basically loners and terribly shy, both pretending to ourselves that the tremendous warmth and rapport we had on-camera extended into real life.

And yet that relationship has been deeply precious to me. Johnny’s acceptance meant that I was still all right—because he believed in me more than I believe in myself. So I always thought he was the one person in the business who understood me and really wished me well, who knew my real feelings.

In return, I gave him unwavering loyalty. Actually, loyalty beyond intelligence. When Merv Griffin went up against Johnny on CBS in New York, I received all sorts of to appear on Merv’s show. But I was the only one who would not go. During the past two years I was offered my own talk show on another network that said it would make me the queen of the network. Orion and Viacom wanted me for syndicated shows opposite Carson. Each time the money was more than I am getting from Fox. I would have been set for life. When I said no, my advisers thought I’d had a lobotomy.

I always swore I would never go up against Johnny. Loyalty is a fetish with me. There is very little else except relationships in this world and, as one gets older, relationships become more intense, more special, more counted on—so I never wanted to do anything to hurt that man.

But a lot of things were happening at NBC that did not instill confidence. When I became permanent guest host three years ago, my yearly contracts ran for the same length as Johnny’s, and I absolutely believed I was secure as long as Johnny was host. Then in 1985 he signed for two years, but my contract was only for one year. That shook me to the very roots of my confidence. It could mean only one thing—the powers were uncertain about my future.

Various straws in the wind now became like tree trunks. I had to face the fact that I was often taken for granted. Carson Productions saw fit to reserve my services only during the eight weeks I was guest host. Any other time I could appear on any network, even opposite Johnny. And though I was delivering consistently high ratings, nobody ever offered me option money to keep me exclusive with NBC beyond my Carson contract. I had to wonder, “Didn’t they think somebody else might be interested in me? Might hire me away?” Moreover, despite what NBC is saying, I held in my hand an NBC interoffice memo listing suggested successors to Johnny in case he did not renew his contract. My name was not on it. That told this insecure Jewish comic, “Honey, you’d better think about new employment.”

I was rarely included in the Carson “family.” I was not even asked to the yearly Carson show party until this year, when somebody told them, “She would really, really like to come.” In 1985, when I had Bill Cosby on as a guest, Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment, sat with him in his dressing room—which is right next to mine. Brandon never bothered to step next door and say hello to me. Then he escorted Cosby to the set—and again did not come over during a commercial and say hello. I was ripped apart. It is stupid and sentimental, but I had been thinking of those people as my family and NBC as my home.

I loved the world backstage—Sal and Sharon in wardrobe glad to see me, Bob the cue-card man, and Irv the stagehand coming into my dressing room to give me NBC gossip and homemade pie from his mother. When I came offstage, the musicians would say, “Good show!” Even with Temple, the censor, I had a love-hate relationship in those long, heated discussions when he was telling me I could say “bitchy” but not “bitch.” I loved the dumb little things that made me feel I belonged, like having a coffee mug with my name on it and my big standing trunk in wardrobe, lined up with the others and labeled “Joan.”

My first inkling that the network brass were not buddies came when I hosted the 1983 Emmy Awards with Eddie Murphy. In the script there was a rough joke about James Watt, written by the Emmy staff. The network executives heard me say it during rehearsals and they laughed. In the show, I read the joke off cue cards. But when the line created a furor in the press, NBC announced that it had been my ad lib, my sin. The Titanic was going down, and NBC was jumping into the lifeboats ahead of the women and children.

I was never told the good things I did—as though they wanted me constantly off balance, wanted me to do well, but not that well. They would tell me, “You lost Denver last night”—which meant that another network received a larger share of the audience. They would no tell me I had won the rest of the 15 major cities. But I knew the truth because we had an outside source who gave us the complete numbers.

In April I did six shows for the BBC and three were No. 1. The BBC specially decorated my dressing room with antiques and Austrian draperies and Chinese screens. When all the BBC brass turned out to congratulate me, I realized that I had never met NBC head Grant Tinker.

Compared to what The Tonight Show was doing for my career, these were all petty slights that singly would have hurt but could eventually be laughed off. But they added up, and the hurt added up—and everything hitched onto the central core of my sensitivity. The public, thank God, tells me they like me by filling casino showrooms and concert arenas all around the country and by making my book Enter Talking a best-seller. But the industry does not take me seriously. I think they see me as just a Las Vegas comic who fills in when Johnny’s not there—and they confuse me with my stage persona, a gossipy, brassy, raucous, mouthy woman. They do not seem to realize she has nothing to do with real life, that she is only an act that sells. Perhaps if the Fox show succeeds, I can achieve my ambition: to be accepted as a peer in this tough town of peers.

By March of this year, when Fox approached me, I felt extremely shaky with Carson Productions and NBC. For my own survival, it was an offer I had to consider, especially because NBC was being dilatory and coy about renewing my contract for 1986-87. On March 5, my manager, Bill Sammeth, tried to initiate negotiations with NBC. He telephoned Johnny’s lawyer, Henry Bushkin, who never returned the call. Billy phoned NBC and was passed to the head of business affairs, who did not call back until March 21—and then only because Billy complained to the president of the network. But still Billy received no assurance about my future—just the usual “I’ll get back to you.” I could not bring the problem to Johnny because we were constantly ordered by his producers and his lawyer, “You do not go to Johnny. You do not upset Johnny.” If I had received a promise that I had a life at NBC, I would have ended the Fox negotiations.

It was not until April 15 that an NBC underling talked to our lawyer and expressed interest in negotiating my contract. There were no further NBC calls until May 5, and we refused the call. By that time, with their attitude so casual and no negotiations under way, I had accepted the Fox offer.

Obviously, I should have told Johnny earlier. That is what I had wanted and planned, sure that this parental figure would be proud and, when he heard my reasons, would say, “I don’t blame you, kiddo. I’ll be on your first show.” I just believed that Johnny, so totally on top of the mountain, was the one person who would understand. The few times I had gone to him, he was the most understanding and open man.

But all my advisers were saying, “Don’t do it. You’ll be dropped the next day.” I insisted, “No.” Then the show refused to book David Brenner as my guest because he had signed for a half-hour syndicated talk show to begin in the fall. So I did not dare tell Johnny and burn that bridge until I had signed the Fox contract. I do not trust any deal until all the signatures are on the paper. My career has been 99 disappointments for the one thing that happens.

I have come to understand why Johnny hung up on me. He could not know my reasons. He has been kept in cotton, everybody afraid to say anything that might disturb him. He is such a profit center that when his feathers are ruffled, the feathers of NBC are ruffled, too.

So I have no quarrel with Johnny. I think he may be bleeding too. But I am terrified of NBC. Apparently they think I am a threat. Advertising fees are based on the ratings, and if I take even two points away from The Tonight Show, that means millions of dollars, so NBC is going to kill me before that happens. My six cities are just a dot, but they are out to erase me—and 21 years of what I have built. That is what I am fighting to save.

Every sycophant is showing how diligent he can be, pursuing what is perceived to be an enemy of Johnny’s, acting as though my accepting a wonderful offer was something immoral. Why shouldn’t I go with somebody who really wants me, who will give me a three years’ on-the-air commitment? I’ve paid my dues of respect to Johnny.

One thing I cannot forgive: NBC has sliced the top off the sheer excitement and joy of having a network show on which I can finally do what I want. On the Carson show I constantly felt there was a bit in my mouth to hold me back, to keep me reined in.

Now I can go for spontaneity, try for the excitement that comes from taking chances. A talk show should be on the edge, suspenseful, a little bit dangerous. That is why I have signed away my life for three years to do the show live every night. I want the show to be talked about, want sometimes to shock, want people to be rude or cry or storm off or come out drunk. That is what used to happen with Jack Paar, and people discussed that show the next day. Nowadays talk shows are oatmeal without sugar.

Everybody says that whoever comes on my show will be blackballed from The Tonight Show. But that is okay. I will go for a younger audience, with younger guests. When Wham! was threatening to break up, I wanted George Michael, but the producers said, “Nobody knows who he is.” I said, “Nobody over 55 knows who he is.”

My judgment was never trusted. The worst was when Challenger exploded. I was devastated and told the Carson producers I could not do the monologue that night. They insisted, saying, “That is our format.” I flatly refused. That was a big turning point for me. I decided I had to find a place in the sun where I could follow my instincts, where I did not have to explain to people why it was inappropriate to do jokes when America is grieving.

So I can hardly wait to have my own show, though it is starting from ground zero. No, ground minus. It is the biggest challenge since the day I said to my parents, “I want to go into show business.” If the show goes under, I will be truly a nobody. I will just have to move to New York, buy six dogs and live gracefully.

But with the show, life will be better for me. I will go to work at 4 p.m., so I will have a daytime life. I will be able to see my camellias bloom. I won’t be on the phone from Minneapolis hearing that the roses look great. On a reduced schedule I will still perform comedy to live audiences. I will not give up that feel of love washing over me, telling me that it’s okay, that I can stay around another day. What makes people laugh tells me what is current around the country. So I will do Las Vegas, Tahoe and Atlantic City—and do weekend concerts in major cities. But no 12 cities in 12 days. There will be a lot of skycaps who will miss me. I’m a big tipper.

Despite all my frustration, I will miss The Tonight Show beyond calculation. It was heaven to sit like a pilot behind that desk and see the show begin to bubble and watch guests you had fought for come through, and the electricity would hum down from that huge Carson audience, all of you together on the same wavelength.

My most thrilling, most sentimental moment on the show was during the Olympics in Los Angeles. I pleaded for weeks to get America’s medal winners on the show—but no, the producers did not want to pay them, did not want to take on the job of assembling and transporting them. But if we handled the logistics, the producers agreed to let the bronze and silver winners be in the audience, but only the gold medal winners could be on the stage.

We turned the lights into the audience and the Olympians stood up, the pride of America, and I went down to them and stood among all that clean-cut youth and vigor, and I felt this tremendous surge, this swell of admiration. Spontaneously, the entire audience rose and the stagehands and musicians stood and we cheered and screamed. It was America applauding.

For 21 years The Tonight Show meant I was not just another comic struggling to play Jersey. It gave me stature and cachet and tone. It meant I belonged. It was the fulcrum of my life, my security blanket, my essential source of pride. Leaving the show empties a huge space in my psyche. The show has been like my mother, who made me feel, “When you’re with me, you’re with the best.” Who is going to do that for me now?

Getting on the show in 1965 was the peak of the first half of my life, and the end of my book is that pivotal moment. On the Friday before my last week as host, Johnny let me promote Enter Talking by reenacting that first Tonight Show shot, going on as a guest in the same final 10 minutes—”the death slot.” As a gimmick, I wore the same Jax dress, the same hairdo and makeup, carried the same sleazo pink boa, and my rapport with Johnny was the same—everything still there in a package—the same understanding, the same ESP, the same ability to break each other up. That night I loved him so much and I almost leaned over during a commercial to share my exciting news about Fox.

Afterward I must have sensed that it was no accident that the circle had been completed, must have sensed that fate had timed this as an ending. As usual, my husband, Edgar, drove me home in our Mercedes, and I sat there beside him, staring straight ahead, holding close with one arm our runt Yorkshire terrier, Spike, and in the other hand clutching the pink boa. Tears soaked my face as I wept and wept and wept.