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By Phil Hall | April 13, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 423: “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” (1986-87 talk show).

LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces of several episodes are available online.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A weird piece of 1980s pop culture that never received a commercial home entertainment release.


Long before his minions were hacking British telephones and pushing far-right politics across American airwaves, Rupert Murdoch wanted to expand the U.S. broadcast network trinity by creating a fourth entity to dominate the national television industry. The Fox Network launched in 1986 with a great deal of fanfare, but its initial effort to rule popular culture turned out to be one of the biggest flops of the decade.

During the early 1980s, Joan Rivers hit something of a career peak. After years of second-tier success, she finally came into her own as the permanent guest host on “The Tonight Show” during weeks when Johnny Carson was on vacation. Part of the success could be attributed to being in the right place at the right time: Carson (truth be told) was getting to be somewhat stale and formulaic during this period, while Rivers’ acerbic barbs resonated with viewers who were growing accustomed to stand-up routines that pushed the envelope far beyond anodyne one-liners.

Rivers’ ability to connect with audiences, however, was not shared by NBC. In the spring of 1986, the network believed that Carson would consider retiring after his contract expired in 1987. A list of potential replacements was compiled, but Rivers was not included among the choices. Somehow, Rivers got wind of this and was livid at her exclusion, because her “Tonight Show” appearances were very highly rated and often surpassed Carson’s rating numbers.

At this point, the executives from the nascent Fox Network approached Rivers with the idea of hosting her own talk show. At the time, there wasn’t much of a network: Fox had acquired a constellation of local stations across the country that barely reached one-quarter of the total TV viewing audience. But Fox had deep pockets and was able to pay Rivers far more than NBC was offering her. Rivers happily accepted a three-year, $15 million contract with Fox.

What happened next has been the subject of a he-said/she-said dispute that was never settled. Carson claimed that he learned the news of Rivers’ signing with Fox from watching a TV news broadcast. Rivers claimed that she phoned Carson to tell him about her move to Fox, but he hung up on her. Carson refused to speak to Rivers again, and her occasional attempts to spark dialogue (including a random encounter at a Hollywood restaurant) were unsuccessful.

“The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” debuted on Fox on October 9, 1986. The opening show certainly got off with a loud bang: Cher, Elton John, David Lee Roth and Pee-Wee Herman were the premiere guests. And Rivers, who seemed to be fueled by adrenalin and sheer will power, steamrolled her way through night like a conquering hero.

On May 15, 1987, Rivers hosted her last episode of “The Late Show.” What went wrong in the course of seven months?

For starters, Rivers was clearly the wrong woman for the job. Her high ratings as Carson’s guest host could be attributed to the fact she was only at the helm for brief spurts throughout the year. In small doses, her distinctive brand of humor could be considered refreshing. On a daily diet, week in and week out, her brand of humor became emetic to most viewers.

Unlike Carson, who maintained some degree of on-air sincerity (even when faced with exasperating or dull guests), Rivers seemed constantly ready to go for the jugular. In the most notorious episode of her program, she had “Dallas” actor Ken Kercheval as a guest and used his presence to make fun of one of her favorite show business targets: Kercheval’s co-star Victoria Principal. Rivers placed a telephone on her desk and tried to call Principal, but kept getting a busy signal. Not letting the joke die, she then dialed the operator to make an emergency break-in call – and then gave out Principal’s private, unlisted telephone number to her viewers. (The program was broadcast live and the number was not bleeped out.) Principal sued Rivers for $3 million, and the women settled out of court.

Also, the program had no personality of its own. Viewers tuning into the program might have believed they were watching a slick, hip riff on “The Tonight Show”: an announcer (pop singer Clint Holmes doing Ed McMahon’s job), an opening monologue, a loud house band (called “The Party Boys and the Tramp,” led by Mark Hudson of the Hudson Brothers music-comedy act), and a set with the host sitting behind a large desk and the guests arranged to the side on horizontal order on a couch. The only thing missing were the Carsonesque comedy sketches.

Finally, the program reportedly had problems getting solid guests. Despite a strong debut, ratings for Rivers’ endeavor began to sink quickly. Many A-list stars, supposedly afraid of being blacklisted from Carson’s program, declined to appear with Rivers. While some entertainment legends graced her stage (a vinegary Lucille Ball and an indefatigable Bette Davis were among her most memorable guests), Rivers found herself stuck with a parade of inarticulate rock stars and less-than-thrilling B-listers. (While few people realized it at the time, the band Hüsker Dü made its U.S. television debut on Rivers’ program.)

Rivers would later acknowledge that Fox Chairman Barry Diller and the show’s producer, her husband Edgar Rosenberg, did not get along, and that Diller immediately blamed Rosenberg when the show began to tank and held him up for public ridicule when Rivers was fired. Rosenberg, who suffered from clinical depression, committed suicide three months after Rivers got the axe.

“The Late Show” limped on for another year with a revolving door of hosts, including Suzanne Sommers and Arsenio Hall, before it was cancelled. By that time, Fox was able to establish itself with a number of edgy primetime series that slowly changed the texture of U.S. TV programming.

“The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” was never released in any commercial home entertainment format, and it is unlikely that it will ever see its way to Blu-ray or DVD. Bits and pieces of the program are scattered across YouTube, along with some station promos by Rivers. These are actually amusing, if only to compare the then-relatively human Rivers (complete with 1980s-style big hair and shoulder pads) to the gnomish troglodyte with a Noh drama-worthy face who can be found haunting today’s cable TV channels.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Leaman Crews says:

    Another excellent column, Phil!

    Thanks for mentioning the Hüsker Dü appearance. I love it when Joan accuses them of selling out by signing to Warner Bros. Records. Who knew Joan Rivers was so up on the politics of indie cred?

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