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Was Johnny Carson right, or was Joan Rivers right? Let's settle this!

Joan Rivers and host Johnny Carson during "The

(Credit: AP)

Let's settle this fight once and for all, shall we? Who was right, or wrong: Joan Rivers or Johnny Carson? It's the solution — if we somehow achieve it right here in this modest little space — to the most famous spat in late-night TV history.

Rivers, the stand-in host for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” goes to Fox to launch a late-night show there, in 1986.

Johnny finds out late in the process — very late. He's furious. Never speaks to Joan again ... She is cast into the wilderness after the Fox show implodes in 1987. Never again to appear on Johnny (or Jay's) “Tonight,” and forced to reinvent herself over and over and over.


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She is bitter about it essentially, well, forever.

Carson — as best I can tell — never spoke of it again. (He left no memoir and Bill Zehme's biography is still in the works.)

So who was right? Who was wrong? Come on kids, we can do this — at the very least, as our final tribute to the great and enduringly funny comedian who died Thursday at the age of 81.

First the facts. Fox, launched then by maverick Barry Diller, needed to start with a bang, but a small bang: Not a full slate of programs, but just one, on one of the key parts of the entire day. Succeed there — opposite Carson — and you can sell the rest of the network to the still-unborn network, a collection of “independent” stations and Fox-owned ones that were still very wary of the crazy notion that another network could actually succeed.

Next, the landscape: In 1986, there were three networks. Three. Not four. There were a couple dozen cable networks, of course, but the idea of “cable” still remained wedded to some notion of pole-climbing mom-and-pop operations that knew how to string wire, but had no idea how to mount competition to the major networks. (It was a bias and wrong, of course — as Ted Turner and others were proving.)

But just three, and at the top of that triumvirate, one man. Johnny Carson. He was a legend in his own lifetime — television's greatest star, period.

No one — not Walter Cronkite or Lucille Ball, or pick your iconic name — was in his firmament. Carson commanded the attention of the nation, defined modern humor for the masses, established a way of speaking about politics and pop culture and even (when he was of a mind to) high culture. ABC had once tried to shake his hegemony with Dick Cavett. Nice try.

CBS didn't even bother.(As the estimable Joe Adalian of New York's "Vulture" points out, not quite! "The Pat Sajak Show.")

Next, Joan. Indisputably a dazzling talent upon whom Johnny had conferred his own special blessing — as host in his absence. She appeared over the years 72 times. He seemed to adore her, but, perhaps more to the point, seemed to trust her as well. Carson, in a long-fraught relationship with NBC, had sought more time off, but you just don't take time off in late night. Letterman doesn't. Jay didn't. The perils are enormous, foremost: What if the audience starts to love the fill-in more than they love the regular host?

Joan — hot, abrasive, funny, “urban" — did not appear to pose a threat at all. Johnny — cool, controlled, nonabrasive, unthreatening and absolutely everyone's idea of the what a late-night host should be — was the exact opposite. They complemented one another without actually subverting one another.

Want a different flavor some nights? There was Joan ... but don't worry, Johnny would be back soon.

Fox — or rather Diller — did what Diller did best back in those days: He ran the table. He figured out who was holding what cards, and played his own. He also quickly knew that contractually NBC had yet to nail down Rivers, knew that she was not on its short list of Carson replacements, knew she would never be on its short list of Carson replacements.

And he made his move. Joan to late night.

This would accomplish a few things. First, get press. An enormous amount.

Second, it would break up the Carson “team.” She was a major part of “Tonight.” Johnny would have to replace that part.

Third, it would convince those affiliates that it had real skin in the game.

But, stealth was essential. No one could learn of the deal. No one could announce it,of course, until much, much later. Rivers — not one to remain silent — had to break character. She had to remain silent.

Why the stealth? Partly because an announcement would force NBC to the bargaining table: Joan would get her deal there (money!) and Johnny's team would remain in place.

There may have been something else going on then, too: Diller and Rupert Murdoch were going after a vital NBC artery. If this was to be war (and it was), best to get your troops in order first.

There was another factor in all this: Edgar Rosenberg, Joan's husband and manager. After all these years, it's difficult to parse the exact nature of this union, but it was complicated: He was to be the producer on this new show, and he handled negotiations with Diller and Fox. It was highly unusual — a husband in charge of the terms and ultimately the show, too. Diller would come to loathe Rosenberg, who was intensely controlling on the “The Late Show with Joan Rivers.” He wanted the control.

Rosenberg, according to some later accounts — or one in particular, Henry Bushkin's — was directly responsible for the rift between Johnny and Joan. Bushkin, Carson's longtime lawyer who also had a falling out with Johnny, wrote in his own memoir that Rosenberg had lied to her about trying to reach out to Carson before the Fox show was announced.

Per Bushkin, Rosenberg — who was doubling as Rivers' executive producer at Fox — had said he had tried repeatedly to call the lawyer, while Bushkin insists that no calls had ever come in.

He writes: “To me, it's entirely plausible Edgar feared that if Johnny talked to Joan and offered her an inducement in any way — a free oil change at Jiffy Lube, say — she would have rejected Fox and stayed with 'The Tonight Show.'"

Bushkin insists Carson would have not stood in her way. Rosenberg committed suicide late in 1987, some months after the cancellation of “Late Show.”

OK, those are the basics. So let's settle this: Who was wrong?

First, should Joan have called Johnny long before the announcement, even at the point Diller first approached her?

Well, that's complicated, but upon reflection — mine, not hers — the answer is yes.

Trust is important. Johnny trusted Joan. Presumably she trusted Johnny. He may well have given his blessing.

Retribution? That could have happened as well, but not to the degree that it would after many months of Rivers still appearing on his show, as if nothing had happened.

And remember one other thing: Carson prized loyalty. He prized it greatly, even when he no longer had much use for those who demonstrated their tireless loyalty (Fred de Cordova, as an example).

And one more thing: Rivers wasn't just taking “another job.” She was going straight for his jugular. She was attacking his base, and his bastion. For all he knew, for all NBC knew, she would take viewers from “Tonight.”

She would certainly take guests. Fox was out to hurt Carson, and by association, Joan was out to hurt Johnny.

He had trusted her. She had betrayed his trust.

She finally called him the day before the announcement — which was the biggest open secret in television, anyway. He hung up on her.

Now, Joan. I'm going to give this over to Joan. Here's what she wrote about the battle in a Hollywood Reporter piece a few years ago:

“I was brought up seven times to the Carson show — interviewed and auditioned seven times by seven different people, and they rejected me, each time, over a period of three years. Then Bill Cosby was filling in, and the comedian that night bombed. Bill said to the booking producer, Shelly Schultz: “Joan Rivers couldn’t be any worse than this guy. Why don’t you use her?”

And that’s when they put me on the show. But they didn’t bring me on as a stand-up comic. They brought me on as a funny girl writer. I’m the only stand-up that never did a stand-up routine on the Carson show.

I adored Johnny. In the ’70s, I did opening monologues, I was hosting. The turning point was when I left the show. Everybody left the show to go to do their own shows. Bill Cosby. David Brenner. George Carlin. Everybody. I stuck around for 18 years. And they finally offered me my own late-night show.

The first person I called was Johnny, and he hung up on me — and never, ever spoke to me again. 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.

I kept saying, “I don’t understand, why is he mad?” He was not angry at anybody else. I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him. I know this sounds very warped. But I don’t understand otherwise what was going on. For years, I thought that maybe he liked me better than the others. But 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.”

Finally, we come to the wrap: Who was right? Who was wrong?

Joan was wrong. She should have consulted with Carson, should have reached out early in the process, should have listened to what he had to say, and should have taken that under advisement. She should not have done what Diller told her to do, or Rosenberg. She should have listened to her own heart — what was right, what was wrong, what was fair.

She should have read that table a little better. She should have seen she was being manipulated. She started from a negative position at Fox as a result — at war with Carson, NBC and many, many handlers in Hollywood who would decline to allow their clients to go on the new “Late Show,” for fear of antagonizing him.

That's a lot of “shoulds,” and admittedly some of them debatable. Hindsight is easy, no?

But this final point: Johnny was ultimately wrong, too.

He should have seen that NBC — as it had with him — was dragging its feet on her, treating her unfairly, not giving her some sense of the future. He should have known there were others out there who would come after her — after all, he had created a big star. He should have offered her some sense of clarity about what he might ultimately do and how that might (ultimately) affect her. He should have also known NBC had no intention of handing over “The Tonight Show” to a woman.

Foremost, he should have forgiven her. Bygones really should be bygones. She really had been a valuable part of “Tonight.” She should have been accorded the respect valued stars deserve.

So, in the end, the day after Joan River's death, maybe we finally have our answer. They were both wrong.

A blue Joan Rivers returns to 'The Tonight Show'

Joan Rivers visits "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy

(Credit: Getty Images / Theo Wargo)

Joan Rivers returned to "The Tonight Show" last night after a 28-year absence marked by recriminations, ill feelings, and insidery show biz back-biting.

And of course she was late to the set.

In fact, Rivers had a very brief cameo on Jimmy Fallon's very first show last month, but let's call last night the first real return.

But no matter. History of sorts was made and even if the return of the former late night queen was a bit blue, a little bit muddled -- and utterly devoid of truth -- so be it. Joan returned to the set that made her famous.

The best part: A nice gracious nod to Johnny -- no last name needed, right? -- which I suppose means no hard feelings anymore.

The interview pointed up the weakest aspect of the new host who otherwise -- as my few readers well know -- I have praised to the Studio 6B rafters. He is in fact doing a bang-up job, except his interviews tend to be exercises in non-information, as last night revealed in abundance.

Why did you not get invited back, he asked her?

He knows why, of course. Everybody knows why. But I also suspected the question was basically just a set-up for one of her oldest jokes.

The reason (if you actually don't know, by the way) is the second to last clip here. While Rivers was chief stand-in at  Carson's "Tonight" -- one of TV's greatest gigs because Johnny did take quite a few days off in the latter years as you'll recall -- she took a job at Fox to host a late night show and direct competitor to Carson. She never told Johnny; he saw her move as a betrayal (and it was certainly that) and he never spoke to her again. Rivers has made all sorts of excuses over the years -- oh, Edgar made her do it! (Edgar Rosenberg, her husband and agent, now deceased.) She couldn't tell Johnny because that would scuttle the deal. And so on.

But the fact remains. Joan betrayed Johnny.

Jay Leno, out of respect to Carson, kept her off his show. Jimmy, who's had her on "Late Night," certainly felt no compunction to do the same. In fact, he's right -- there is no reason. It's all ancient history. (Her "Late Show" essentially launched Fox back in October of '86, and the network fired her the following May.)

Another odd sidebar: David Letterman, who revered Johnny, buried the hatchet with her about four years ago.   

Clips. The second one is from her "Tonight" days, and is fascinating because Johnny holds up the photo from Joan's first date on "Tonight," 21 years earlier. Jimmy did the same last night. 

Meanwhile, I've put up the Letterman interview, too. Dave lays it all out very well. Infinitely better than last night's somewhat sad return.

She was often funny during her long association at "Tonight," and could've -- just possibly, maybe, who knows! -- even been the next "Tonight" host. But alas.

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