Joan Rivers

    • First audition for The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson

    • FEB 17

      Joan Rivers's first appearance on The Tonight Show

    • Rivers begins making the rounds on television

    • AUG

      Rivers becomes permanent guest host, filling in for Carson

    • Warm on the air, cold in real life

    • The big break(-up)

    • MAY

      Joan Rivers booted from Fox

    • JAN 23

      Carson dies

    • FEB 17

      Rivers returns to Tonight Show after 29 years

  • Publicity photo of Johnny Carson from the television program The Tonight Show.

    First audition for The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson

    Joan Rivers' rise to prominence is widely credited to her appearances on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson in 1965. But it wasn't always a sure thing - and the relationship soured as Rivers struck out on her own.

    This timeline charts that relationship and the eventual ban the show had on her appearances that lasted through several hosts, concluding nearly three decades later when she did a brief appearance on host Jimmy Fallon's first episode.

    Rivers first auditioned for the show in 1962. She was rejected then, and seven more times after that over the course of three years.

    The future star said she believed she was given short shrift because she was a woman; the show had thus far only booked men as comedians, and even when she finally was booked it was not for stand-up.

    "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," Rivers later wrote for The Hollywood Reporter.
  • Joan Rivers's first appearance on The Tonight Show

    Rivers was finally booked for The Tonight Show, and made her appearance on February 17.

    She got the gig after another comedian bombed. Her friend, comedian Bill Cosby, who had appeared several times, proposed to the booking producer that Rivers be given a chance.

    She was billed as a "funny girl writer," rather than a stand-up performer. Instead of a monologue, she was interviewed by Carson.

    Still, she was a hit, and her wit and charm struck so well that Carson leaned over and said, “You’re gonna be a star.”
  • Rivers begins making the rounds on television

    Carson was right - Rivers was going to be a star. And it didn't take long; after The Tonight Show gig she began making rounds on television with a flurry of appearances and writing credits.

    The same year as her first The Tonight Show appearance, she had a stint on Candid Camera luring unsuspecting folks into the gag, and she had gigs on The Ed Sullivan Show.

    Over the course on the next five years, she made numerous other appearances with Carson, wrote material for Sullivan's puppet show Topo Gigio and even had a short-lived daytime talk show named That Show with Joan Rivers. Her first guest? Johnny Carson.

    Additionally, she released two comedy albums.

    During the 1970s, she was on The Carol Burnett Show, a semi-regular on Hollywood Squares, the voice behind a handful of animated characters, and had written two movies and directed one, Rabbit Test, starring Billy Crystal.

    In this video, you can see her on The Sammy Davis Show, hosted by Johnny Carson, in 1966. Again, she's introduced as a writer - not a comedian.
  • Rivers becomes permanent guest host, filling in for Carson

    By the time she became Carson's official fill-in in August 1983, Rivers had already guest hosted more than 90 episodes. She called herself "Johnny Carson's daughter" and publicly credited him with boosting her career.

    "Johnny was the one person who said, 'Yes, she has talent; yes, she is funny.' He was the first person in power who respected what I was doing and realized what I could become. He handed me my career," she told People magazine in 1986.

    During this time she was also turning down offers from other shows as a display of loyalty to her mentor. She refused to appear on The Merv Girffin Show and turned down offers to become host of her own show.

    "I gave him unwavering loyalty … I never wanted to do anything to hurt that man," she recalled.

    This video shows an opening monologue she performed while guest hosting in 1984
  • Warm on the air, cold in real life

    Though the two appeared to be the best of friends in public, they shared little intimacy in their private lives. They were respectful colleagues and mutual supporters, but the relationship ended there.

    "I adored him on air. He adored me on air. The lights would go down, and he would play the drums, and I would say - for the 9 years on that show, for the 10 years I was on the show - 'Boy the band sounds good tonight.' That was our conversation," she recalled in an interview for the Archive of American Television shortly before her death. "We had no relationship. He was a very cold man ... Johnny was in a little box, and he didn't let people in."

  • The big break(-up)

    Rivers made television history by signing on to the soon-to-launch Fox Television Network as host of "The Late Show starring Joan Rivers." It made her the first woman to have a late night talk show - but it also made her compete with Carson.

    The accounts have varied over the years, but Carson said he learned of the show during a Fox press announcement. Rivers has alternately said that she called him right away, but he hung up the phone - but has also said that she called only after she learned he had found out. In all tellings, Carson immediately hung up on her, and the two never spoke again.

    Carson banned Rivers from the show, and his two successors - Jay Leno and Conan O'Brian - respected the ban over the next 28 years.

    Rivers later revealed that she made her decision after learning that her fate on The Tonight Show was becoming less certain. She told People magazine that her contracts were always renewed for the same length as Carson's - but in 1985, he was renewed for two years while she was only offered a one-year contract.

    She believed gender was also a factor at NBC.

    "NBC would never give [the host spot] to a woman," she told PBS. She recalled holding "in my hand an NBC interoffice memo listing suggested successors to Johnny in case he did not renew his contract. My name was not on it."

    She also believed Carson felt personally betrayed not because of the lack of heads up, but because she was a woman - especially since several other Tonight Show staples including Bill Cosby, David Brenner and George Carlin had moved on to other shows.

    "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," Rivers wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.

    Her final appearance on The Tonight Show was in 1986, not as guest host but to promote a new book. She and Carson reminisced about their careers, and she wore the same dress she wore on her first show 21 years earlier.

  • Joan Rivers booted from Fox

    Rivers was shown the door at Fox less than a year after the show premiered.

    Some credit the feud with Carson and NBC as having undermined its success. Carson's talent booker, for example, made it widely known that a Rivers show appearance would mean being blacklisted from the Carson show.

    Meanwhile, Fox executives clashed with Rivers from the beginning, disagreeing on most things including the show's direction and guests, its tone and staffing. The final straw was executives' attempts to fire her husband Edgar Rosenberg, who produced the show. When she challenged them, they were both fired. Rosenberg committed suicide three months later.

    Carson, who met Rivers through Rosenberg, did not reach out to Rivers after Rosenberg's passing.

    "It was like Stalin had sent me to Siberia," Rivers told People.

    Rivers' debut episode, seen here, featured David Lee Roth, Pee Wee Herman, Elton John and Cher. She was succeeded by Arsenio Hall.
  • Carson dies

    When Johnny Carson died in 2005, the two had gone nearly 20 years without a word between them. She had attempted to reach out years earlier when Carson's son Ricky died in an accident, sending flowers and a note. Carson sent them back.

    Though Carson had retired from The Tonight Show in 1995, his successor Jay Leno kept the ban in place. Leno said it was at first out of respect for Carson, and then just because it was "awkward."

    “It got a little awkward by that point too. Joan was sort of going on and on about me and I thought, let’s let the ground lie fallow for a while and see what happens, but she always kind of kept it going! And I like Joan — I mean, that was the first autograph I ever got, was Joan Rivers… I went to see her at the Chateau de Ville in Framingham[, Mass.] and we were friends, and by then it just got to be awkward and then we never did it," he told Access Hollywood.

    Months before her death, Rivers responded to Leno in front of cameras, flipping the bird and saying, "“To Jay! Well, Jay. Twenty-three years. I’m still here and you’re going to be selling cars.”
  • Rivers returns to Tonight Show after 29 years

    On the much anticipated debut show of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, who took over the show from Leno, Rivers made a surprise cameo as part of the show's opening skit.

    "It's about time!" she told a Variety reporter after the appearance. "I've been sitting in a taxi outside NBC with the meter running since 1987."

    The appearance also marked the 49-year anniversary, to the day, that she first appeared on Carson's show.

    The seconds-long appearance was followed up weeks later with a full-fledged guest spot. She began the interview saying, "I'm so sorry I'm late."

    Thirty seconds into the interview she made a joke referencing the Holocaust. Fallon, head in hands, quipped, "Welcome back to the network, Joan."