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Joan Rivers: Why Johnny Carson 'Never Ever Spoke to Me Again'

Joan Rivers Johnny Carson - H 2012
Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show"

Writing for THR, the legendary comedian opens up about her bitter breakup with Carson, for whom she had guest hosted for years on "Tonight Show."

When I started out, a pretty girl did not go into comedy. If you saw a pretty girl walk into a nightclub, she was automatically a singer. Comedy was all white, older men. It was Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope, Shelley Berman, Red Skelton ... even Amos and Andy were white men, which is hilarious if you think about it.

Phyllis Diller was happening right before me. But even Phyllis was a caricature, and I didn’t want to be a caricature. I was a college graduate; I wanted to get married.

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I didn’t even want to be a comedian. Nobody wanted to be a comedian. Nowadays, everyone wants to be a comedian. You look at a Whitney Cummings, who is so beautiful -- she wanted to be a comedian! I wanted to be an actress. I was an office temp when one secretary said to me: “You’re very funny. You should go do stand-up, be a comedian. They make $6 a night some places.” And I said, “That’s more than I’m making as an office temp” -- I made eight, but I had to also pay for my Correcto-Type because I was a lousy speller -- so I thought, “Oh, I could do that and have days free to make the rounds.” And that’s why I became a comedian.

I had no idea what I was doing. The white men were doing “mother-in-law” and “my wife’s so fat …” jokes. It was all interchangeable. Bob Hope would walk into a town and say, “The traffic lights in this town are so slow that ...” and it could be any town. When I went onstage, that just didn’t feel right. So I just said, “Let me talk about my life.” It was at the moment when Woody Allen was saying, “Let me talk about my life,” and George Carlin was saying, “Maybe I'll talk about my life.” So I came in at the right moment.

My group was Woody and George and Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Rodney Dangerfield. Dick Cavett. All the ones who were coming up at the same time. But I never was one of the guys. I was never asked to go hang out; I never thought about it until later. They would all go to the Stage Delicatessen afterward and talk. I never got to go uptown and have a sandwich with them. So, even though I was with them, I wasn’t with them.

Everybody broke through ahead of me. I was the last one in the group to break through, or to be allowed to break through. Looking back, I think it was because I was a woman. Because in those days, they would come down to the Village and look at you for Johnny Carson. I was the very last one of the group they put on the Carson show.

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.

Carson, give him credit, said on air in 1965, “You’re gonna be a star.” Right smack on the air.

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.

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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.

And I was put up against him. In the press, he said, “She didn’t call me, and she was so terrible.” When you’ve told the truth and you read a lie, there’s nothing you can do about it. To this day, I’m very angry about that. Don’t f---in’ lie. You’re making, what, $300 million a year? What are you talking about? And I was going on Fox. Fox didn’t even have call letters at that point. Fox wasn’t Fox. Fox was six stupid little stations.

Looking back, and I never like to say it, the Carson breakup hurt me a lot, without realizing it. Even now, with our reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? or Fashion Police, when I say, “No, this is wrong,” people say: “See? She is a bitch. She is a c---.” If I were a man, they’d say: “So brilliant. He’s tough, but he’s right.” Nobody ever says to me, “You’re right.”

I have a friend. She was a producer at NBC and so brilliant. And they fired her because she was very abrasive. Lorne Michaels has a reputation of being a tough nut. But they all say, “That Lorne, he’s mean, but he’s brilliant.”

This woman, they said, “Oh, she’s too nasty.” But she pulled in the numbers.

It’s very tough in the business. My act consists of my gown that I carry and two spotlights and a microphone. I’ll do my sound check, and sometimes they’re not happy when I say, “The sound isn’t right,” or “Can we try other lights?” Because they’re men at the board.

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And lighting is very key for a woman, especially. I’ve been in the business almost 50 years -- I know my f---ing lighting. And there is always pushback from the lighting people. They just don’t want to hear it from a woman. They just don’t want to give you that cookie.

I don’t want to hear that male comics want someone to match wits with. No, they don’t. They want someone to sit there and gaze at them adoringly. That’s still what they want. The upside is, they don’t get to wear the pretty clothes. They don’t get to have the pretty dressing room. Women comedians get the private bathroom first.

During women’s lib, which was at its height in the ’70s, you had to say: “F--- the men. I could do better.” I think women did themselves a disservice because they wouldn’t talk about reality. Nobody wanted to say, “I had a lousy date” or “He left me.” But if that’s your life, that’s what they wanna hear. If you look around, very few women comics came out of the ’70s. It really started again in the ’90s, when they realized, it’s all right to say you wanna get married. It’s all right to say I wanna be pretty. That’s also part of your life. Thank God. Because now you know, we’ve got Whitney. I love Whitney. I think what she does is so smart. Sarah Silverman, oh my God. You just look at them and go: Good girls.

I love stand-up -- the connection with an audience is awesome. I just played Royal Albert Hall, which is 4,500 people, probably not a lot for some. But for me, it was amazing. The energy! From the beginning, and to this day, I would never tell a lie onstage. So now I walk out, I go, “I’m so happy to see you,” and I really truly am so happy to see them. The one thing I brought to this business is speaking the absolute truth. Say only what you really feel about the subject. And that’s too bad if they don’t like it. That’s what comedy is. It’s you telling the truth as you see it.

I think it was Cosby who also said to me, “If only 2 percent of the world thinks you’re funny, you’ll still fill stadiums for the rest of your life.”

My advice to women comedians is: First of all, don’t worry about the money. Love the process. You don’t know when it’s gonna happen. Louis C.K. started hitting in his 40s; he’d been doing it for 20 years. And don’t settle. I don’t want to ever hear, “It’s good enough.” Then it’s not good enough. Don’t ever underestimate your audience. They can tell when it isn’t true. Also: Ignore your competition. A Mafia guy in Vegas gave me this advice: “Run your own race, put on your blinders.” Don’t worry about how others are doing. Something better will come.

Ignore aging: Comedy is the one place it doesn’t matter. It matters in singing because the voice goes. It matters certainly in acting because you’re no longer the sexpot. But in comedy, if you can tell a joke, they will gather around your deathbed. If you’re funny, you’re funny. Isn’t that wonderful?

If there is a secret to being a comedian, it’s just loving what you do. It is my drug of choice. I don’t need real drugs. I don’t need liquor. It’s the joy that I get performing. That is my rush. I get it nowhere else.

What pleasure you feel when you’ve kept people happy for an hour and a half. They’ve forgotten their troubles. It’s great. There’s nothing like it in the world. When everybody’s laughing, it’s a party. And then you get a check at the end. That’s very nice.