Home Celebrity Bombshell: How Johnny Carson’s Rift with Joan Rivers Really Went Down

Now that I have the full manuscript of Henry Bushkin’s tell all about Johnny Carson, I thought we’d get some insight into brutal falling out between Carson and Joan Rivers. And we do. Bushkin essentially lays the blame for the 1986 war of the comics at the feet of Joan’s late husband Edgar Rosenberg.

Skipping to the end of the tale, Bushkin says that Rosenberg lied to Rivers about trying to reach Carson and discuss her offer of moving to Fox and starting her own show. Bushkin says he never received a call from Rosenberg to put Johnny and Joan on the phone. But Rosenberg swore that he’d called Bushkin and received no answer.

Carson never spoke to Rivers again after she left her Tonight show guest hosting spot for Fox. He banned her from being on any NBC show. Her Fox show was canceled, and Rosenberg, sadly, committed suicide.

Bushkin notes that if Rivers had only contacted Carson before the announcement of her Fox show was made, he would have congratulated her. Bushkin says that Carson always admired Rivers as a great comedian. But he did not “fear her.”

Ironically, Carson and Edgar and Joan had already had a history. In the spring of 1979, when Carson was declared a free agent and suddenly had no contract with NBC, it was Rosenberg who stepped in. He set up two meetings for Carson with ABC executives. One of the meetings, Bushkin writes, was held in “international waters” on a yacht in the Mediterranean.Carson, Bushkin writes, called Rosenberg “Inspector Clouseau” because everything he did was clouded in mystery.

At the time,, Carson was so angry with NBC and almost made the move. ABC offered to double his salary and let him own his show. He could also control the time period following the show.

But NBC intervened. In the spring of 1980 they gave Carson a $25 million a year contract for 3 days of work a week, 37 weeks a year. The rest was time off and vacation. And Joan Rivers was his guest host on Monday nights until she left for Fox.

Bushkin’s book, titled “Johnny Carson,” is published next Tuesday by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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47 replies to this post
  1. Carson entertained whether the jokes written for him were good or bad, whether the guests were good or bad, popular or unknown…… people watched because of Carson and his fun personality. Now, if you want to talk about his yes man Ed, that’s another story……

  2. Carson labored under a debilitating illness, chronic depression, yet succeeded very greatly. Why? Simple, he was great, the best that ever was. And very greatly missed! Even today he remembered and shall be.

  3. Jay worked clean???? H did oral sex jokes every night for twenty years, ever since that night Hugh Grant was on for getting oral sex from a hooker. Then he spent every night for the rest of his tenure doing oral sex jokes in every monologue about “Clinton. David Letterman fell behind because he wasn’t dirty, like Jay. This all blows the whistle on the Carson attacker. Carson introduced dizens of the greatest comics. Jay never broke a comic in 22 years. He did a terrible damage to show business, why we are in a rut of 1980’s Sat Nite Live players still in movies.

  4. To be at the top of the heap in television–pre cable/satellite– when there were only the 3 major networks and a few local stations and before the VCR–(yes, I said VCR and manually programming it and recording on video tape–the only form of time-shifting viewing)–was really being a “Star”. You literally had to stay up at night to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Why he clicked and others didn’t? I do not have the answer. I know he could make–or break a career He killed comedian, David Brenner’s career after Carson had previously promoted it. But is this new? That Carson was pandered to when he became drunk and violent–is that so unique?. To me, he was just a guy with some talent, a lot of ego, drive and ambition and his share of insecurities and demons– and even most important, staying in the game to be there at the right time and place and a whole lot of luck–perfect for the business he went into.

    Oh, by the way, in the Tonight Show history, you never hear gossip about Jay Leno–because there is none. He may not be your style, but I truly respect the man; he works hard and respects his wife of –I think it is 30 years of marriage and he does a clean show. The Tonight Show is there to promote the latest movie, tv show or book. It is appropriate “entertainment” for the time slot for what is left of it for that genre.

    The television of the Johnny Carson era, to me, is just nostalgia–and maybe his great “comedic talent” would not be as appealing now as it was then–he was what he was for that era–as was Milton Berle for his era (certainly a guy in dressed in drag would not leave anyone laughing in the aisles like it did in early television 1948).

  5. I don’t blame Joan in the least. If her husband lied and this was the outcome, it’s a shame. But for Carson to ban her from NBC and never speak to her ever again is very telling of his egocentric and self-centered personality. Joan did as much for Carson as humanly possible. She’s still quite successful and has overcome the obstacles that “the boys club” barricaded her with and is still swinging the bat at 80 years-old. I admire her greatly. Don’t get me wrong, Carson was a genius as the King of Late Night but he was one drunken and miserable S.O.B. BUT he had great taste. Just as he took Rivers under his wing, he did the same for Letterman. He was appalled that NBC made the revolting decision to replace him with Jay Leno whose schtick would’ve worked better back in the 50s. Letterman was and still is cutting edge and it’s no mistake that the Emmys overlooked Leno year after year while they were honoring Dave and his team. You either “get” Letterman or you don’t. It takes a brain to understand Letterman and it takes two ears with nothing in between to watch Jay read his cue cards and deliver the dreck that he offers every weeknight. Back to Johnny and Joan. It’s too late for any reconciliation but Joan knows she did the right thing. Unfortunately, she also knows that her husband did the wrong thing but she believed someone that wasn’t upfront with her, and sadly, the one person that should’ve been.

  6. I think Joan is a mean-spirited, self-centered, un-American, vile human. This is backed by the way she violently attacked Mel Gibson several years ago and her comments were way, way beyond the pale. If you ever watched her away from a script(i.e. Donald Trumps’ old show where celebrities and others competed)then you would see a truly ugly human being, attacking anyone that got in her way and using vile language in the process. Johnny was great and he did a lot to help Joan but frankly I think Edgar killed himself because Joan drove him to it.

  7. I have such vivid memories of the time my casting company was hired by Rivers and her revolting husband Edgar Rosenberg to cast her directorial dud RABBIT TEST. At our initial meeting at their massive Brentwood estate Rosenberg ask us how much our services would cost and we replied “$10,000″. “That sounds about right” said Rosenberg. During the next two months we auditioned hundreds of actors and hired one hundred and twenty seven but not a single dollar of our compensation materialized. Finally I called Rosenberg and demanded our compensation and he disputed the sum we’d agreed on with the reply “At our meeting I said the $10,000 sum SOUNDS right, I never said it WAS right” upon which I took it upon myself to tell Rosenberg that I intended to tear up every single actor’s deal sheet and call each and every actor’s rep to cancel their participation. When Rosenberg relented and said he’d send a check I demanded that he show up at our office promptly at 9 a.m. with $10,000 in cash and sure enough Rosenberg knocked on our door the following morning and with an enormous scowl handed us the cash. I later found out that Rivers was aware of her husband’s chicanery. It doesn’t surprise me that Rivers continues the nefarious activities practiced by her late and totally unlamented husband because in their callous greed and selfishness they are essentially one and the same.

  8. I miss Johnny plain and simple. There’s no one before or since that has the timing, the wit and the delivery talent of Johnny Carson. He was truly a once in a lifetime individual for a late night comedy talk show. I like Leno, but still not close. Letterman is a joke altogether. Long live Johnny’s legacy.

  9. As much as it certainly doesn’t matter now, thanks for the article. I too, believe Rosenberg was depressed because of the damage he did just by telling a lie. It’s too bad this book took so long to come out; the 20 something’s don’t even know who Johnny Carson was. But one thing he was, was great. I miss ya Johnny, never watched late night regularly again.

  10. I always thought Johnny Carson’s talent was over rated. He perfected a look for when his jokes were duds, as they often were. But to me, he often seemed oddly awkward and at a loss for words.

  11. I think that only people who are old enough to have listened to Johnny’s show every night would be interested in this story. Other people are making crass remarks because they have no idea it was such a big story at the time. Johnny Carson was one of the funniest men in the history of comedy; I never heard anyone funnier, except for Eddie Murphy when he was young and doing standup. John Rivers is not slapstick but is very, very funny. Younger people like comedians who infuse their comedy with vulgarities and sex. That’s not funny to my generation. Being young is like a disease, you eventually get over it.

  12. I’ve never been able to understand what people liked about Joan Rivers’ “comedy”. She’s just nasty in so many ways. The nights she hosted on The Tonight Show, I watched something else. The only thing funny about her is what she’s done to her face.

  13. Well, Carson found Joan funny – he was responsible for her first big break and she was a constant guest through the 70’s until finally filling in for Johnny,

  14. What a waste of time reading this dribble! A “real juicy story”! If this is one of the highlights of the books, it will be remaindered fast than a Lynsey Lohan made-for TV-movie!

  15. I would never ever come to site like this, only here because of the headline link on Drudge;

    That said WHO GIVES S H I T about any of these over indulgent people REALLY?

  16. Interesting stuff. I hope it was in a hurried rush of excitement you published such a poorly written article. All those feathers in your cap and you still put out something like this?

  17. I’ve seen Joan interviewed on this subject and she took full responsibility. She didn’t mention that her late husband was involved or dropped the ball. I have new respect for Ms. Rivers.

  18. I really could care less what overpaid entertainers think. Actors, Musicians, Athletes. They live in a different world where they are catered to, worshipped, and paid extraordinary for what little they do. To boot, they get special tax treatment where they pay little if any personal income tax.

    So the next time the majority of them (libtards) spout off on some issue that never personally affects them, remember how their lifestyle is so similar to yours. Fresh flowers in your dressing room with a bottle of MaCallan 18yr old scotch, only yellow M&M’s, black limousine with AC set at 71.5 degrees, caviar. I will not try and describe the rap artist’s preferences but perhaps it is to have 2 blondes, an Escalade Limo with spinning wheels, and blunts laying around.

  19. Sheds a lot more light on Rosenberg’s suicide. Previously blamed on vague free-floating depression, it seems a lot more logical that he knew he intervened in Rivers’ relationship with Carson and when she was cut loose from Fox, the significance of that damage to her career must have weighed heavy on him. Yeah, I know, everyone has an opinion. Just saying this is what makes the most sense to me.

  20. What do I think? As in who’s side would I take? Let me put it this way… I would stomp Joan into the ground for a DVD collection of Carson’s greatest moments. I’d do even worse to have someone of Carson’s talent on late night. I doubt we’ll ever see his kind again.

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