As the story of the Johnny Carson-Joan Rivers feud goes, Carson never spoke to his former Tonight Show protege again when she left to host her own late-night program in 1986. Now, as part of a previously unaired interview, Rivers explains to EW Radio how Carson should’ve handled the situation for everyone’s benefit.
“What Johnny should’ve done — and it’s so theatrical,” she says, “after the whole thing, after I left the show, and after I was fired from Fox, and after Edgar committed suicide [Rivers’ husband Edgar Rosenberg died by suicide in 1987], Johnny should’ve had me back on the show and said to me, ‘Where you been?’”
Rivers claimed that act alone “would’ve made all the newspapers.” She added, “We should’ve picked right up and that would’ve been what the Jews call, he would’ve been a mensch, and it would’ve continued.”
Listen to the clip below.
Rivers, who became known for her abrasive comedic bits, was a permanent guest host on The Tonight Show from 1983 to 1986 and served as a writer. “Johnny was the one person who said, ‘Yes, she has talent; yes, she is funny,’” Rivers wrote in an op-ed published in 1986. “He was the first person in power who respected what I was doing and realized what I could become. He handed me my career.”
Fox then approached her with an offer to headline The Late Show with Joan Rivers, which premiered on Oct. 9, 1986. In the same op-ed, Rivers explained she took the offer in part because she was unsettled when Carson’s contract was renewed for two years, but hers was only renewed for one.
“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,” Rivers wrote in a 2012 column published in The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
Rivers was ousted from The Late Show by 1987, but at that point she had been blacklisted from The Tonight Show. Jay Leno even upheld her ban when he took over “out of respect for Johnny,” he told Access Hollywood in 2014.
Rivers finally appeared again on The Tonight Show for Jimmy Fallon’s first episode as host before her death on Sept. 4, 2014.
The rest of her final interview will air Friday night at 6 p.m. ET on EW Radio SiriusXM 105 and will be available on demand on the SiriusXM app.