News from the Archive

Johnny vs. Joanie: A Tale of Two Talk Show Hosts

February 8th, 2017
Joan Rivers

The Invasion of Grenada, the Falklands War, the Soviet-Afghan conflict. These are some of the events that come to mind when one considers the wars of the ‘80s. You may also remember the hard fought cola wars, which pitted America’s favorite TV dad against its biggest pop superstar. That one ended ugly. But I will forever remember what had been the opening salvo and precursor to what would eventually become known as “The Late Night Wars”- fired across the bow of none other than Johnny Carson. The ultimate goal was to do something that no one had been able to do in the 24 years leading up to it, or, it can be argued, has been able to do in the 31 years since: dethrone Carson as the King of Late Night. It was also the story that sparked my interest in eventually wanting to know as much as I could about broadcasting history and the personalities who made it all happen.

I could not believe when I got home from school and heard the news that day. On Tuesday, May 6, 1986, Joan Rivers, who’d been Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on The Tonight Show for several years running, and whom Carson had discovered in 1965, had announced she was starting her own late night talk show on the then-fledgling Fox Broadcasting Company. There was a problem. A very big problem for Joan, as it turned out. The news had leaked to Johnny Carson before Joan Rivers could speak to him about it. And when Joan Rivers attempted to call him, he hung up on her!

Hung up on her? How was this possible? People in show business didn’t fight. They were all one big happy family. Ask Sammy Davis, Jr.! Also, Joan had just appeared with Johnny a week earlier to promote her autobiography, “Enter Talking.” She wore the very same dress and hairstyle she’d donned in 1965, and they were great together. You could see the affection. You could always sense that Carson found Rivers hysterical, and was proud of his role in her career. She’d just been guest hosting for him four days before. And, after all, I didn’t remember Carson being upset with David Brenner, or any number of others, when they struck out on their own. Why was this one different? I never really bought the “lack of courtesy call” explanation.

I didn’t know who Joan Rivers was until I saw her host Saturday Night Live in 1983. I was a little kid at the time, but I was precocious when it came to television. There was something about her personality that completely captivated me. From then on, every time she guest-hosted The Tonight Show, I made to sure set my top loading VCR to start taping an hour early (I taped David Letterman nightly) to catch Joan Rivers. In those years, she was one of the great talk show hosts of all time. Her monologues were hysterical, and her interviews with celebrities like Boy George were often headline-making and usually memorable. Johnny still may have been the gold standard, but Joan Rivers actually was “Must See TV” ten years before it became NBC’s slogan.

The evening of Johnny-hanging-up-gate, Joan Rivers was scheduled to be a guest on Late Night with David Letterman. I’d been looking forward to it because I’d never seen her with Dave before. I tuned in to see Dave complaining that Joan had cancelled on them, which he did not understand because she was across the hall from studio 6A at 30 Rock doing NBC’s local newscast Live at Five. Late in the show, Joan Rivers did a quick walk-on, hugged Letterman, and exited. It would be 16 years before she appeared on David Letterman’s stage again. 28 before she would again appear on The Tonight Show.

The next day in school, it was all I could talk about. “Why would anyone want to discuss anything else?” I wondered. Eventually, my English teacher Mrs. Jailer disabused me of this notion. “John, I really just don’t care about any of this.” Well. Ok. BUT HOW COULD YOU NOT? In the months leading up to Rivers’ debut on FOX’s The Late Show, Johnny Carson never mentioned her name in public. Not once. But it seemed like the only thing Joan Rivers wanted to talk about, which I’m sure irritated Carson to no end. She would claim to have seen a “secret list” of possible Carson replacements in the event of his retirement, and her name was nowhere to be found. She would also point out at every opportunity that her ratings when she guest hosted were higher than Carson’s (actually only true if you averaged in Carson’s Monday night repeat.) Joan, it seemed, was completely devastated by his reaction. Johnny, given his lack of public comment, appeared to care less about the matter than even Mrs. Jailer.  

This was the first time I’d ever been interested in the goings on behind the scenes in television. It piqued my interest in the history of television and radio, and prompted me to devour books about Carson’s hero Jack Benny, and his Tonight Show predecessors Jack Paar and Steve Allen. I wound up minoring in broadcasting history at Emerson College, and still have somewhat more than a passing interest in the subject. I studied Bill Carter’s two books on late night television like The Torah. Though, I think he’d do well to write a prequel to cover the Rivers/Carson matter. It would be sort of like “The Hobbit” to “The Late Shift’s” “Lord of the Rings.”

That October, I watched the long anticipated Late Show with Joan Rivers debut, and… well opening night jitters. Give her another night. Ok, a week for things to settle in. But, alas, something happened. It just wasn’t the same. Joan wasn’t the same. Maybe she worked better in smaller doses. More likely, it seemed to me, was that she needed a Fred de Cordova. She was lacking a seasoned executive producer to guide her, and make the show flow better, and tell her when to tone it down. It’s no secret that Joan’s husband Edgar Rosenberg was not quite up to the task of producing a nightly talk show. He’d been a fine manager for Joan, but he was doing her no favors at Fox. Sagging ratings and ugly battles with Fox Chairman Barry Diller led to the show ending on May 15, 1987, a year and a week after the news of the show first broke.

To me, Joan Rivers was never again as great as she was as guest-host of The Tonight Show. I think she realized it on some level, as she never stopped talking about how Johnny Carson broke her heart. Late in her life, she taped herself talking to Johnny,” and just months before her death got to make a cameo on Jimmy Fallon’s first Tonight Show. She stuck around just long enough to see herself become a full-fledged legend.

In that 1986 season, Carson was victorious once again, and would remain so until he stepped down, and all hell broke loose. Once again I found myself enthralled by the drama - this time of David Letterman demanding to be let out of his NBC contract when The Tonight Show was given to Jay Leno in June of 1991. The Leno vs. Letterman drama played out for two years before it was announced that Dave was going to CBS and Jay was staying at NBC. And, of course, there was the Conan/Jay battle of 2010. Will Stephen Colbert switch time slots with James Corden over at CBS? Stay tuned. But I don’t think any of it matched the shock, the drama, or the pathos of Johnny v Joanie. There was a death (Edgar Rosenberg) and a reconciliation (Rivers and Barry Diller eventually made buckets of money for each other on QVC). It was all positively Shakespearean, and I remain hooked.

For more juicy stories of television’s greatest feuds, search our collection.

- by John Dalton

Share and Enjoy:

The Archive Celebrates Black History Month

February 8th, 2017

The Archive celebrates Black History Month with our latest Google Cultural Institute exhibit. Check it out below!

Share and Enjoy:

Mom Always Liked You Best: "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" Turns 50!

February 5th, 2017
Dick and Tom Smothers

Tom and Dick. Tea with Goldie. Pete Seeger. These are just a few associations one makes at the mention of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Some others: controversy, cancellation, law suit.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour first premiered on CBS on February 5, 1967 with brothers Tom and Dick Smothers as hosts. The variety show lasted three seasons and seventy-two episodes and attracted a young, anti-establishment audience. The program featured hip, up and coming musicians like Seeger, who in 1967 famously performed "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"on the show. The song told the story of a Louisiana platoon on a practice patrol in 1942 and was a not-so-subtle satire of President Johnson's views on the Vietnam War. CBS executives found the song to be too political and Standards and Practices censored the performance from the broadcast. The Who, known for destroying their instruments at the end of a set, had a particularly explosive finish to their performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour - pyrotechnics overloaded by the band resulted in drummer Keith Moon getting hit by cymbal shrapnel and guitarist Pete Townshend's hair getting singed. The music on the program was not exactly standard Ed Sullivan or Lawrence Welk fare.

In addition to lively musical acts, the program consisted of a stand-up routine with the brothers (during which goofy Tommy would often utter his signature line, "Mom liked you best" to straight man Dick), and sketches that regularly tested the censors' boundaries. Leigh French played the recurring character "Goldie O'Keefe" whose "Share a Little Tea with Goldie" parodied a typical advice show for ladies. Standards and Practices was unaware that tea was slang for marijuana, so Goldie often got away with dialogue like "Hi(gh)--and glad of it!"

The young brothers' frequent anti-war and pro-Civil Rights guests, along with their overall counter-culture sensibilities, conflicted with those of CBS and the program was abruptly cancelled on April 4, 1969, after CBS President Bob Wood stated the Smothers Brothers had failed to submit the upcoming episode for review at the scheduled time. The brothers were fired and in turn, sued CBS.

We sat down with Tom and Dick Smothers in 2000 and they discussed the cancellation of the show:

CBS Executive Mike Dann brought The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to CBS, and believes the show's cancellation was a travesty:

Despite the cancellation, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour won the 1969 Emmy for Best Comedy Writing, thanks to staff writers like Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Bob Einstein ("Super Dave"), and Pat Paulsen. Reiner recalled his time on the program fondly, stating that he learned much about the art of comedy from the brothers:

Though the program aired for only three seasons, it garnered a loyal following and many see it as the forerunner of current programs like The Daily Show and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The brothers entered the headlines again in 2011 when George Clooney's production company, Smokehouse Pictures, announced it will develop a movie about The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in an adaptation of David Bianculli’s book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. (Can't wait to see that!) A dedicated fan base, clear convictions to which they remain true, and a movie based on their TV show? Mom's got lots of reasons to be plenty proud of both her sons.

Visit our Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour show page for more about the program.

- by Adrienne Faillace

Share and Enjoy:

Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

January 25th, 2017
blog post image

We’re so sad to learn that beloved actress Mary Tyler Moore has passed away at the age of 80. Moore was born in Brooklyn and later moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. After appearances on various early television shows, her career took off when Carl Reiner cast her as “Laura Petrie” on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In 1969, she and Grant Tinker formed MTM Enterprises, which produced Moore’s next show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore starred as “Mary Richards” for seven seasons. She went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “Ordinary People” and was International Chairman of JRDF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation).

Below are some selections from her 1997 interview:

On being cast on The Dick Van Dyke Show:

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show finale:

On her role in “Ordinary People”:

Watch Mary Tyler Moore’s full Archive interview and read her obituary in The Hollywood Reporter.

Share and Enjoy:

The Story Behind Roots

January 23rd, 2017
blog post image

On January 23, 1977, Roots debuted on ABC. The first installment gave ABC ratings unlike any had that been seen before, and the miniseries went on to shatter viewership records night after night for its eight-day run. 

But the success of this miniseries, indeed the fact that it even made it to the small screen, was anything but preordained. 

It all started, of course, with Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who had been the original Playboy interviewer and the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But the project’s first step toward the small screen happened in Moscow, before the book, Roots had even been written, when actress/civil rights activist Ruby Dee met producer David L. Wolper

Dee and her husband Ossie Davis had been introduced to Alex Haley before this trip to Moscow, and heard the story of his research into his family’s history, which Haley was planning to turn in to a book. So, when Dee met Wolper, as Davis describes it, “David Wolper talking to Ruby Dee, trying to find out what some of the things she would like to see television tackle. Ruby mentioned this particular author [Haley].” Months later, Wolper called Dee to get a phone number for Haley, and that’s how she earned the nickname, “the godmother of Roots.” 

Wolper purchased the rights to Roots from Haley, and, on the strength of Haley’s storytelling, sold the idea to ABC executive Brandon Stoddard. Roots, the book, had not yet been written. Stoddard describes a conversation he had with fellow executive Lou Rudolph following a lunch with Wolper and Haley where they agreed to buy the book, “I said, ‘You know, Lou, I just think we bought a book that doesn’t exist…. Oh my god, I hope this thing’s going to work.’”

Haley went on to write that book, and, simultaneously, screenwriters including William Blinn and Ernest Kinoy penned the scripts for the miniseries. Blinn says, “We were writing the script in such a way that there were some stuff [Haley] would incorporate into the book from the script.” 

Once the scripts had been written, the attention turned to casting. Executive producer Wolper recommended casting “comfortable” white actors for the roles of slave owners and slave traders, which included Edward Asner, Lorne Greene, and Ralph Waite. Other notable actors cast in the show included Leslie Uggams, John Amos, Richard Roundtree, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, and Ben Vereen, among many others.

An unknown named LeVar Burton was cast as a young Kunta Kinte. He was discovered while a student at USC, though the decision to cast him did not happen overnight. In fact, his screen tests were shuttled back and forth from the ABC offices on the West coast to the East, because, as Burton says, “None of the executives on either coast wanted to go on record as being the one who pulled the trigger on giving the kid with no previous professional experience the lead in this multi-hour television experiment, which was what Roots really was at the time.“ Finally, just a few weeks before shooting was set to begin, they made the final decision and cast Burton, who would become an overnight star when Roots aired. 

But before Roots could air, it had to be fit into ABC’s schedule, and the president of the network, Fred Silverman, was nervous. “I just didn't know how the audience would respond to the subject matter.” He decided to air it for eight nights straight, a decision which writer William Blinn says could be attributed to the desire to, “bathe this country in this story that we all needed to see,” or else it was to, “get rid of this goddamn thing, it's going to kill the network, just get rid of it as soon as you can.” Blinn says he believes the second explanation more than the first.  And Quincy Jones, who composed for Roots, tends to agree, “The last night it played was on a Sunday night, and Sweeps Week started the next night. So, they were actually trying to sweep Roots under the rug.”

Whatever the reasons, Roots aired in this unusual manner, and it picked up steam, gathering huge audiences night after night, culminating in the final episode, which was the highest rated single episode of a television show up to that time. Roots mania swept the nation. As Roots composer Gerald Fried describes, “At about 8:30 the restaurants would clear out. Everybody was going home to watch Roots at 9:00." And Leslie Uggams shares this experience, “I was in Vegas rehearsing Guys and Dolls and Ann-Margret called me up and she said, ‘We’ve changed the time of our show because nobody’s coming to see it. Everybody’s watching Roots.’”

Some people, including Fred Silverman attributed the success of the program to the fact that the East Coast was experiencing heavy winter storms throughout that week. But David L. Wolper disputes this characterization, as he says sarcastically, “It was very inclement here in California. I think it was 80 degrees and we had a 71 share, too…I guess we didn't want to go out here, it was too nice out in California. So that's why we stayed home.”

Whether because of the weather or the subject matter or the compelling family drama, Roots was a massive success. And its impact went well beyond entertainment value. Ossie Davis says that the miniseries, “helped supply America with a truer definition of who black people are than any other work that had come before.” 

Many Americans came to understand for the first time, what slavery truly looked like and felt like, and its cost to our nation. As writer Ernest Kinoy says, “the interesting thing was that it was extremely popular, not just for the black public, but very, very popular with the white public. I have seen studies that indicated that there was a shift in attitude in and around that time, which was attributed to Roots.” But John Amos, who played the older Kunta Kinte fears that the lessons learned from Roots were short-lived, “America did take Roots to heart for a while and I would think that the cause of true integration and what the Constitution really stands for was brought to light. And then, as time went by…the impact that it had was dissipated appreciably, so we’re back now to Ferguson."

In speaking of Roots during his Archive interview, LeVar Burton says, “I genuinely believe that race is, in this country and this culture, one of the few things that you can trace back to the heart of everything that happens here…And unless we can, in some way, come to some kind of terms with the legacy of slavery, it's impossible for us to live fully in the present and it makes no sense to try and forge a future.” 

Roots stands as a landmark moment when the story of slavery came into our living rooms, and we welcomed it, acknowledging the pain it caused and the scars that still remain. And, forty years later, the legacy of Roots itself still lives on. In 2016, the History Channel aired its reboot of the miniseries, and those that watched the original in 1977 can still recall the impact of sharing that particular story of that particular American family night after night with so many of their countrymen.

Hear more of the stories behind Roots, from its development and casting to its success and legacy in the playlist below. And watch interviews with more of Roots cast and creators on our Roots page

- by Jenna Hymes

Share and Enjoy: