Joan Rivers bombed in late night for the world to see, on an upstart network no one thought would last. In the process, she infuriated Johnny Carson, the titanic TV star who had long supported her and, 20 years before, made her an overnight star.
Or, put another way: In October 1986, Rivers made TV history as the first (and still only) woman to host a late-night broadcast talk show. She was the first face of the Fox network, headlining its first program, "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers." She was a winner.
And through getting fired after eight months on the air, then losing her husband to suicide three months after that, Rivers displayed epic fortitude. She picked herself up, recreated herself and renewed her career.
"The beauty of Joan is that, despite the tragic loss of a friendship, of a show and of a husband, she was resilient. And after all that, she became part of pop culture once again — or more so than ever before," says Henry Bushkin, Carson's one-time legal adviser.
In retrospect, her flier in late-night TV should occupy only one, brief chapter in a long, storied career — a trailblazing run that ended Thursday, all too soon, days after Rivers, a dynamic 81, went into cardiac arrest at a doctor's office during a routine procedure. A private funeral is set for Sunday.
With "The Late Show," she took her place as one in a string of Carson's fallen challengers, who also included Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Alan Thicke.
"It's nobody's fault," Rivers told the audience on her last "Late Show," adding, "I've been in this business for 23 years. I'm going to be in it another 23 years."
She did that and then some. But never again on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Rivers' debut appearance with Carson in 1965 propelled her into the national spotlight. And after dozens more appearances through the years, both as a guest and subbing for Johnny at his desk, she was named the show's first "permanent guest host" in 1983.
Then, unbeknownst to Carson, Rivers signed with Fox for a show to compete against him.
Bushkin, who then was among Carson's inner circle, recalls the day he learned about her deal.
"I got a call from a reporter — 'Did you know ...?'" says Bushkin, who recently published "Johnny Carson," a book about working with the legendary host. "I didn't know, and I immediately called Johnny to let HIM know before he found out somewhere else."
What was Carson's response to the news?
"I'll edit it," says Bushkin. "He was very upset."
Despite Rivers' attempts to smooth things over with her friend and mentor, Carson, who died in 2005, never spoke to her again. And his de facto blacklist seemed to last long after his retirement. Rivers returned to "The Tonight Show" only this year, when incoming host Jimmy Fallon welcomed her back to the same NBC studio where she had made her first appearance 49 years earlier.
"I didn't think it was necessary for Johnny to get so upset or for Joan's side to handle things so badly," says Dick Cavett, a late-night veteran who said he was friends with both Rivers and Carson. Of her show, he says, "I didn't want to see her every night. But whenever I tuned in, I found her hilarious."
But in 1986, Carson commanded a vast viewership and ruled the land of late night with an iron fist. Rivers thought there was room for a new player. So did Fox.
The brash new network and its first offering, a raucous new talk show, were announced that May. Fox President Jamie Kellner declared Rivers' show would be "the cornerstone" of the network.
Today, Kellner still sees "The Late Show" as having scored its own brand of success.
"It got us moving forward with the network," he says from Santa Barbara, California, where he produces not TV but wines under the Cent'Anni label. "It was a good show to cut our teeth on, and we had potential there."
He recalls the premiere. David Lee Roth and Pee Wee Herman were guests. Rivers joined Elton John at the piano to sing "The Bitch Is Back."
"There was a lot of energy and a lot of excitement that night," Kellner says. "Who knows why it didn't work? But Joan did a great job."
Nonetheless, on a Friday in May 1987, Rivers hosted her last show, which in its brief life had failed to grab an adequate audience while behind-the-scenes conflicts raged. Two months earlier, Edgar Rosenberg, Rivers' husband and the show's executive producer, had been barred from daily duties by the network. Now Rivers was off the air.
"They raped me," Rivers told a reporter several days later.
Then, in August, Rosenberg, battling health problems and despondent over the failure of their show, committed suicide.
It would be another two years before Rivers found steady work — and when she did, she came back fabulously, with a new weekday syndicated talk show. In 1990, the show garnered her a daytime Emmy Award — and she bested powerhouses that included Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey.
"Everything is cyclical," Rivers told The Associated Press during a chat last year. "So I just enjoy the good times. And when the bad times come, I know it isn't forever. It's happened to me three or four times in my life. But I moved forward."