For more than 20 years, comedienne Joan Rivers was one of the most popular guests on one of television’s most popular shows, The Tonight Show. But her decision to host her own talk show against the “king of late night,” Johnny Carson, ended the longtime bond between Rivers and her mentor and led to the most challenging and painful period in her career.

Rivers struggled for years before her big break

Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York in 1933, Rivers initially wanted to be a dramatic actress before switching to comedy in the mid-1950s, in part to support her theatrical goals. One of the few female stand-ups of the era, she spent nearly a decade eking out a living as a writer and performer, alongside fellow comics like Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and others. By the mid-1960s, however, Rivers’ life was a crossroads. Her first marriage had quickly ended in divorce, and many of her peers had found mainstream success, while she continued to play smaller clubs and cabarets with her unique, female-focused routines and sets.

One of the most important launching pads of the era (and in the decades to come), was The Tonight Show, with a series of hosts since its 1954 premiere. Rivers had performed previously on the show when it was hosted by Jack Paar — a disastrous appearance that was a career setback. In 1962, Carson became its new host, and Tonight quickly become the showcase for emerging comedians. Rivers repeatedly auditioned for the show without success, and by early 1965, many in the industry told her she was washed up, aged just 31.

Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson
Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson during an episode of ’The Tonight Show’ on October 14, 1977.
Photo: Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

'The Tonight Show' made her an overnight sensation

Although there are conflicting theories about how she finally got her big break (Rivers credited Bill Cosby for promoting her to the show’s bookers), Rivers finally made her first appearance on Carson’s show on February 17, 1965. Touted for her comedic writing skills, not as a stand-up, she was invited to sit next to him — a coveted spot — and quickly wowed the host, who noted on-air that he thought Rivers was going to be a star. As Rivers later said, she knew in that moment that her life was going to be different. And it was. Almost immediately, she began booking high-profile gigs and appearances and was hired as a Tonight Show show writer.

Rivers made nearly 100 Tonight Show appearances, where she and Carson showed a quick, warm on-air banter, despite their having little off-camera contact, due, in part, to Carson’s legendary aloofness. When Rivers launched a short-lived daytime talk show in 1968, Carson was her first celebrity guest, and she regularly credited him for the remarkable boost he’d given her career. Rivers also began serving as a substitute host when Carson was on vacation. While she rotated the position with several other comedians, including David Brenner and Garry Shandling, by 1983, she’d become the primary guest host.

Rivers would later state that she received several offers to host her own program but remained at Tonight out of loyalty to Carson. By the mid-1980s, however, her relationship with NBC executives began to sour. She was resentful that they had not signed her to a long-term deal to keep her with the show and the network, and when NBC, concerned that Carson might soon retire, prepared a list of possible permanent replacements (which was leaked to the press), Rivers didn’t make the cut.

Carson was furious when he learned about Rivers’ Fox show

In early 1986, Rivers was approached by Barry Diller and executives from the soon-to-launch Fox Television Networks. Diller, eager to make a big splash to attract audiences and advertisers to a fledgling start-up hoping to take on the “Big Three” networks, tried to lure Rivers away with a tantalizing proposition — $10 million for her own show, making her the first female late-night host. Fox also promised to hire Rivers’ husband, Edgar Rosenberg, to serve as the show’s producer, an unusual business arrangement, but one which helped sweeten the deal for Rivers.

While other Tonight regulars had launched their own competing shows (which all quickly failed against the behemoth that was Carson), they’d done so with his blessing, and Rivers may have assumed that she would be no different. Negotiations over the new show were shrouded in secrecy, and Rivers was determined not to tell Carson about it until plans were formalized, a decision she came to regret. She later said that she had avoided talking to Carson out of fear that the deal might fall through and because NBC and Tonight executives had urged everyone on the show to avoid discussing difficult or sensitive matters with the temperamental host.

The weekend before Rivers’ show was announced, news leaked out. Rivers claimed she repeatedly tried to reach Carson, and when she finally did, he hung up on her before she could explain. Carson, meanwhile, claimed that Rivers never called him and that he felt betrayed. Rivers later wrote about the incident, saying, “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.”

The two never spoke again before Carson’s 2005 death. Rivers had not only lost her mentor, but she’d also gained Carson’s enmity.

Rivers’ show resulted in professional disappointment and personal tragedy

The Late Show premiered on October 9, 1986, and almost immediately ran into trouble. A number of local affiliates refused to air the show, some out of fear of Rivers’ brand of comedy, some out of loyalty to Carson. The Tonight Show team made it known that anyone appearing on Rivers’ show would be banned from Carson’s, making booking celebrity guests nearly impossible.

Ratings quickly declined, and both Rivers and her husband began to clash with staff and Fox executives. When Rivers was ordered to fire Rosenberg, she refused, and both of them were fired the following May, less than nine months after the show premiered. The Late Show continued for several years with a series of new hosts, including comedian Arsenio Hall, whose popularity as host helped him launch his own successful late-night show several years later.

Rivers was devastated by the failure, and the experience put an increasing strain on her marriage. After more than 30 years, the couple quietly separated, and just three months after being fired, Rosenberg committed suicide, overdosing on prescription pills. Rosenberg, who was also Rivers’ business manager, had squandered much of her wealth, leaving her dangerously in debt.

She didn’t return to 'The Tonight Show' for 26 years

Rivers rebounded following the failure of The Late Show, hosting a daytime talk show that earned her an Emmy Award during its run and launching successful clothing and fashion lines. She also continued her successful stand-up and writing career and made numerous television appearances. But for more than two decades, none of them were on The Tonight Show. Carson, of course, refused to have her on. Jay Leno, Rivers’ replacement as guest host who took over the reins after Carson’s retirement in 1992, refused as well, out of loyalty to Carson.

Rivers made her first appearance on the show in nearly three decades when she briefly showed up in a skit on Jimmy Fallon’s first episode as host, in February 2014. She returned as a guest the following month, where Fallon brought out a photo of one of Rivers’ first appearances on the show — the night Carson had declared she would become a star. Rivers died six months later at age 81 following complications from surgery.