This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if…?
In October 1986, comedian Joan Rivers debuted her own late night talk show on FOX. It was a move based on Rivers’ work as the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” which was strong enough for most people to think Rivers might be a logical choice to take over when Carson retired. But that idea fell apart after a confidential memo for NBC executives was leaked listing ten possible replacements for Carson — and Rivers was nowhere on the list. When Carson decided to sign on for a three year contract and Rivers was only given a one-year extension on her deal, she had no problem hopping networks (and taking a bigger payday) from FOX. Unfortunately, her screw-you to NBC also made Carson feel blindsided. After the move, he never spoke to Rivers again. Ultimately, it was all for naught. Rivers was fired in May of 1987.
What if “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers” on FOX wasn’t cancelled?
Three things that might not have happened:
‘The Arsenio Hall Show’ might never have happened
Hall stepped in for Rivers as a permanent guest host and might have been the logical choice to take over — but by the time execs figured out his ratings were worth pursuing, FOX had already canceled the show and had ordered episodes of what was to be the short-lived “The Wilton North Report.” After that, Hall wasn’t going to be available anyway, as he was off to film the Eddie Murphy vehicle “Coming to America.” It was all a case of bad timing for FOX, which tried to shoehorn in Howard Stern (his pilots never aired) and Ross Shafer to keep the franchise afloat. Luckily, Hall had already proven himself as a draw for younger audience, so he signed on for his own show — with Paramount — in 1989.
We never would have had to see the mess that was “The Chevy Chase Show.”
Even though FOX had a run of very bad luck after Rivers, that didn’t stop the network from trying to find a show to fit the late night slot after a lengthy break. In 1993, the network launched “The Chevy Chase Show.” It lasted for five weeks, which may have been the longest five weeks in television history. Certainly wall-to-wall helicopter chases might have been easier to watch. Chase, clearly out of his element, tried to recreate the pratfalls and silliness that worked during his “Saturday Night Live” heyday to very poor effect, while blundering through interviews with a cringe-worthy lack of élan. To this day, the show still shows up on “worst ever” lists.
The battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman for “The Tonight Show” might have been very different.
It’s hard to predict what might have happened if Rivers had just talked to Carson about her plans to leave (chances are, he would have told her to walk — which is what he later recommended to David Letterman when NBC executives overruled Carson’s recommendation and hired Leno instead). If the battle for “The Tonight Show” had become a three-person race (and Rivers hadn’t already proven herself as a lackluster ratings draw on FOX), there’s no guessing where all of the players might have landed.
Three things we predict might have happened:
We’d have more women than just the largely one-note Chelsea Handler in late night slots.
We would have been spared the blather that is “Fashion Police.”
Melissa Rivers would not have become her mom’s reliable TV sidekick.
Did history work out for the best?
Not really. Even if you hate Joan Rivers (and many people do), she was more than competent in taking care of the franchise when Carson was on vacation. Leno may have been an easy-to-swallow replacement for Carson, but critics have long seen his comedy as toothless and uninspired. But really, it seems like NBC is never truly happy with whoever is in the big chair since Carson’s exit, kicking out Leno, plugging in Conan O’Brien, bringing back Leno, and most recently kicking him out again for Jimmy Fallon. Given that Rivers is (and was) a known quantity, she might have been able to dig in her heels and build an audience on FOX, giving the fourth network its own product to push in the late night space. Instead, most FOX affiliates ended up running Hall’s show, which had a unique voice of its own — just not a female one.