'Why Did You Stop Talking to Me?': Joan Rivers on Emotional Visit to Johnny Carson's Gravestone
Late TV hosts Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson never had the chance to make amends after she left “The Tonight Show” to host her program in another network. In an attempt at moving on, Rivers visited her old friend's gravestone one year before her passing.
Joan Rivers owed her career to “The Tonight Show” and its host Johnny Carson, and that’s something she always stated with pride and admiration.
However, when Rivers decided to move her career forward without consulting Carson first, the king of late-night TV felt betrayed, and they never spoke again.
Then, he passed away. While Rivers always expressed bitterness over the end of their relationship, she couldn’t help but get emotional on an impromptu visit to one of Carson’s memorial plaques.
The start of a not-so-warm friendship
In the ‘60s, Rivers was a struggling comedian and actress trying to make her big break on TV and performing at small clubs to make ends meet.
Most of the fellow comedians with which she started—including Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby—had already taken big strides into their career. But she was left behind, perhaps for being a woman trying to break into a men’s world.
She auditioned seven times to appear as a stand-up comedian on “The Tonight Show” and failed every time. But that changed in February 1965.
"I think he really felt because I was a woman that I just was his. That I wouldn’t leave him."
According to an op-ed piece Rivers wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, Bill Cosby had been on the show as a guest host when the comedian of the 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,” Rivers recalled.
However, she wasn’t booked as a standup comedian but as a funny writer and was given a chance to sit next to Carson, which was a huge honor. That night, Carson told Rivers on camera: “You’re gonna be a star,” and changed her life forever.
After that, Rivers became a recurring guest on the show, and at some point started to fill in for Carson as a guest host whenever he was on vacation.
Johnny and Joan’s relationship
The public always welcomed their on-screen banter, and Rivers soon became famous for her self-deprecating humor and her unafraid attitude to make jokes about sensitive topics or even celebrities.
And while Carson and Rivers passed as very good and close friends when the lights went on, they weren’t really that close when the cameras were off.
Rivers recalled that they only saw each other in social situations four times since she moved to California, and it was usually in large groups. Their friendship, she said, existed on-camera in front of America.
She wrote on People:
“When the red light went off, we had nothing to say to each other beyond ‘How’s Edgar?’ , ‘Gee doesn’t the band sound great tonight’—and even the banalities lapsed after 30 seconds, Johnny sitting silent, drumming his pencil on the desk.”
Still, when the lights went on, they were back onto their screen personas, vibrating on the same wavelength and encouraging each other with jokes and warm conversation.
“And yet that relationship has been deeply precious to me,” Rivers continued, explaining that Carson’s acceptance and encouragement meant a lot to her.
An attractive offer
In the mid-’80s, Rivers’ relationship with the high powers at NBC was started to deteriorate.
She wasn’t receiving the same attention at her network that she received from other sides of the industry, and when she found out her contract was renewed for only one year in 1985, while Carson signed for two, Rivers grew worried about her future.
“That shook me to the very roots of my confidence. It could mean only one thing—the powers were uncertain about my future,” she recalled.
In 1986, the soon-to-launch Fox Television Network reached out to Rivers and offered her own late-night show with a salary that was 15 times what she got on “The Tonight Show,” but she would be Carson’s competitor.
She accepted the offer, and when she tried to share the good news with Carson, her team stopped her, and she listened, something she would regret later.
Rivers’ team believed that if NBC found out she was leaving beforehand, they would drop her, and she would stay out off air for a year.
“Obviously, I should have told Johnny earlier,” she said. “That is what I had wanted and planned, sure that this parental figure would be proud and when he heard my reasons, would say, ‘I don’t blame you, kiddo. I’ll be on your first show.’”
But things didn’t go that way, and Carson eventually found out about Rivers’ departure when the news leaked.
Rivers called him to try and explain, but he hung up the phone without letting her speak. They never spoke again after that, and Rivers got banned from NBC for over two decades.
The “Fashion Police” star would later reflect on her piece for The Hollywood Reporter that:
“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. […]He didn’t like that as a woman, I went up against him.”
Never too late to make amends
Johnny Carson passed away on January 23, 2005, of respiratory failure.
He and Joan never had the chance to make amends, and that bothered Rivers.
Then, in 2013, while filming her reality show, “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” Rivers decided it was time to pay a visit to Carson’s grave.
However, since he was cremated, the closest Joan found to a grave was the memorial plaque put on his honor at Johnny Carson Park in Burbank.
Although Rivers was planning to mock her old friend, once she arrived at the place, she was overwhelmed by emotion, sitting on the plaque and asking Carson:
“Why did you stop talking to me? For 20 years, you wouldn’t talk to me.”
Joan then recalled her story on the show and how Carson told her she would be a star. Unable to hold her back her tears, she added:
“I loved him so much. And we worked so well together. All I do know is that there are so few people that you connect with in life. It just hurts; it hurts to lose a friend. It hurts not to be able to make amends.”
Rivers went to put a rose on his memorial, apologizing to Carson if she hurt him, but saying he hurt her too.
“And wherever you are, I really miss you,” she concluded. ”And I thank you, and I hope you rest in peace.”
Joan Rivers passed away the following year, on September 4, 2014.