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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.
PHOTOS: Celebs honor Rivers at funeral | Classic Rivers pictures
SOCIAL: Celeb, fan reactions
MORE: Video of Rivers' great TV moments | Rivers cartoons
OPINION: Rivers wasn't PC, and that's what we need
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.
The biggest television and media company the world has ever seen, or quite possibly ever will see is not to be, at least not yet: 21st Century Fox has withdrawn its spectacular bid for Time Warner.
Here's the statement from 21st Century Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch, who clearly coveted the cash-and-prestige machine HBO in this deal:
“We viewed a combination with Time Warner as a unique opportunity to bring together two great companies, each with celebrated content and brands. Our proposal had significant strategic merit and compelling financial rationale and our approach had always been friendly.
"However, Time Warner management and its board refused to engage with us to explore an offer which was highly compelling. Additionally, the reaction in our share price since our proposal was made undervalues our stock and makes the transaction unattractive to Fox shareholders. These factors, coupled with our commitment to be both disciplined in our approach to the combination and focused on delivering value for the Fox shareholders, has led us to withdraw our offer."
The withdrawal is a bit of a surprise, even if the Justice Department would have had a lot of explaining to do by allowing such a merger to proceed -- creating a media combination that would fully control a quarter of the motion picture industry (if not more) and a vast collection of TV assets and suppliers whose products reach every man, woman and child in the United States.
The original bid in June -- not made public until July -- was classic Murdoch: Aggressive, fast and absolutely unexpected -- even apparently by Time Warner, which is now effectively in play, even without the Fox offer in hand.
Bob Beckel, one of the hosts of Fox News' hit series, "The Five," on Monday apologized for a racial slur that he uttered - then retracted - on the air last week during a rant about China. (You can see the clip of his apology here, or below...) The bizarre episode occurred when Beckel was just warming up his anti-China diatribe, when he slipped in the term "Chinamen" -- a slur that seemed to have...Read more »
They're back -- all of them, so that professional "American Idol" watchers can no longer claim that everyone is abandoning the franchise: Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. will return as judges, for the 14th season. And just in time for July 23rd auditions at Nassau Coliseum. They are good judges so this is good news ... (and good certainly for beleagured "Idol," which needed some stabilizing news right about now.Judge turnover has been endemic in recent seasons).
“Jennifer, Keith, Harry and Ryan are the very best in the business at what they do, and I’m thrilled that they are returning to "American Idol" for another season. Each brings unique qualities and expertise to the team, but they all share the same passion for helping undiscovered singers achieve the American dream,” said David Hill, senior executive vice president, 21st Century Fox.
"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" ends Sunday (WNYW/5 at 9 p.m.), and before this remarkable Fox venture sails off into infinity and beyond, a brief farewell...
There has certainly never been anything quite like "Cosmos" on Fox -- bedfellows as strange as bedfellows could be, made stranger by the presence of Seth McFarlane, who brought this 13-part remake of the 1980 Carl Sagan classic to the...Read more »
Kevin Reilly's long run at the top of Fox is over: The chief of the network's entertainment division told his staff in a brief farewell note Thursday morning that he will leave by the end of June:
To my friends and colleagues: I have decided to resign as Chairman of Entertainment at FBC, effective at the end of June. While difficult decisions have to be made every day, none have weighed more heavily on me than this. The inspired FOX leadership, coupled with your commitment to excellence at FBC, has provided one of the most rewarding chapters in my life. I love TV. Always have. Since my mother told me to stop sitting so close and watching so much.
A surprise? Well...depends on how you define "surprise:" Reilly, a savvy and highly successful entertainment boss over his decade long run (both here and at NBC), had pretty much seemed to have played all his cards by the end of last season - and even then, the primetime declines were relentless. The problems, in order: 1.) "American Idol." 2.) Sitcoms - as in, they haven't taken off, and in fact quite the opposite; 3.) Dramas, as in "You can't built an entire schedule on 'Sleepy Hollow.' "
Nonetheless, too bad: Reilly, an LI native son - he was born in Manhasset, raised in Port Washington, went to Chaminade in Garden City, then went to Cornell - is a smart exec who clearly loved - with a passion - the best parts of this business, and what makes it exciting. He had many successes but through no fault of his own, was stuck with a declining franchise, "Idol," that simply had nowhere to go but down...
Fox needs a hit, and not just one with the numbers "24" in the title. It also needs to think about an "Idol-less" future or one where a once-reliable tent poll is no more reliable or even a tent poll. It needs a hit.
But who or what? "Utopia," the unscripted series, will air twice a week -- one of outings on Friday at 10, which is a recognition on the part of Fox that there is nothing to gained...Read more »
"American Idol" -- limping to the finish line this season, or "limping" relative to immediate previous seasons -- will be cut back to 37 hours next year, and likely air on one night per week as a two-hour edition, Fox Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly told TV writers recently.
But Reilly did offer a big vote of confidence in the veteran series, which has essentially fallen off the "franchise" pedestal this season: It will, he said, be around "many years," though in a diminished capacity, much as "Survivor" no longer dominates....
"It's not going to come back and be the ratings champ it was, but it will come back for many years to come as a potent time period show," he said. "In the same way 'Survivor' hasn't been [dominant] that's the mode with 'Idol.'" He also dashed any suggestion that "Idol" remains in some sort of "turnaround" limbo. "That story's been told..." The show will be reformatted next season -- no details except the change to 37 hours from the 50-plus-hour editions that have historically aired.
Just to refresh memories, as if they might actually need refreshing, "Idol" helped Fox win season after season through the '00s, much as "Sunday Night Football" has been so critical to NBC's turnaround. "Idol" is now essentially just another series - a successful one certainly, but a financially stressed one, given the enormous host salaries, and other related production expenses. Reilly said nothing about the hosts next season -- though nothing should be read into that. Host announcements invariably arrive in late summer or even early fall.
But he did certainly offer hope that the end is nowhere near in sight...
The Fox fall lineup is here and, of note, the Batman origin story series, "Gotham," will be on Mondays at 8 while "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" shifts to Sunday, essentially breaking up the Animation Domination lineup.
Also: Other key Fox newcomers, like "Wayward Pines" and "Last Man on Earth" will arrive midseason. (Nothing to read in that -- networks in fact sometimes hold off the most promising series until later.)
You will also see the word "Utopia" here twice -- yes, Fox is betting big on this latest from production company Endemol, which evokes (superficially) "Survivor" and is based on a pre-existing Dutch series: Two new episodes of this unscripted show will air in the same week, so Fox is clearly hoping this one breaks out.
Since the dawn of time, humans have always wondered: does a perfect world exist? Now, we get the chance to build one. Will it be ultimate happiness or utter chaos? Fifteen pioneering Americans leave their everyday lives and move to an isolated, undeveloped location -- for an entire year -- where they are challenged to create their own civilization from scratch.
Well, you get the idea.
Meanwhile, "Mulaney" is the John Mulaney sitcom; "Gracepoint" is the "Broadchurch" remake; "Red Band Society" is the Octavia Spencer vehicle, a high school drama/comedy.
FOX FALL 2014 SCHEDULE (All Times ET/PT)
8-9 PM "Gotham" (new)
9-10 PM "Sleepy Hollow"
8-9 PM "Utopia" (new)
9-9:30 PM "New Girl"
9:30-10 PM "The Mindy Project"
8-9 PM "Hell's Kitchen"
9-10 PM "Red Band Society" (new)
8-9 PM "Bones"
9-10 PM "Gracepoint" (new)
8-9 PM "MasterChef Junior"
9-10 PM "Utopia" (new)
7-10:30 PM Fox Sports Saturday: Fox College Football
7-7:30 PM NFL on Fox
7:30-8 PM The OT / "Bob's Burgers"
8-8:30 PM "The Simpsons"
8:30-9 PM "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
9-9:30 PM "Family Guy"
9:30-10 PM "Mulaney" (new)
"Backstrom" (new), "Bordertown" (new), "Empire" (new), "Hieroglyph" (new), "The last man on Earth" (new), "Wayward Pines" (new) and :"Weird Loners" (new) join the schedule in 2015, as do returning series "American Idol XIV," "The Following" and "Glee," among others.
"I Wanna Marry Harry" -- a forthcoming cheesefest on Fox that promises to stir up old memories of awful reality series of yore, like "Joe Millionaire" -- has two Long Island women on the cast.
Quickly, the set-up: Twelve women travel to England where they are told they will meet Prince Harry, for a chance at romance, or at least a chance for a nice dinner...
In fact... oh come on... you know what happens: He's really not Harry, but a lookalike (Matthew Hicks, though you be the judge as to whether his looks are indeed alike). He sends one woman home each week. Presumably none of them catch on... Presumably... Arrives May 27 on channel 5. Be afraid, be very afraid.
The LIers are: Kimberly Birch (Malverne) and Jacqueline Conroy (Rockville Centre).