If Steve Allen made the late-night television talk show a possibility, and Jack Paar made it a ritual, Johnny Carson made it an institution. And while his dominance over the time slot was unparalleled, it was also often challenged – as far back as the 1960s, when ABC and CBS set up would-be rivals like Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, and Les Crane with competing programs, only to watch them crumple in the face of King Johnny. But the desire to topple Carson reached a fever pitch in 1980s, with Johnny growing older and less relevant, as one late-night talker after another attempted to either supplant the legendary host, or further dilute the audience that had chosen sides in the Jay vs. Dave war. Most of them failed – and some did so spectacularly.
Thicke of the Night
Length Of Run: Ten months (1983-1984)
The Show: Canadian actor/songwriter/personality Alan Thicke was recruited by MGM television to turn his daytime talk show into a late-night fixture. (What the hell? It worked for Letterman.) In an attempt to shake up the stodgy Tonight Show format, Thicke booked the kind of rock guests Johnny wouldn’t touch (including the first television appearances by Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bon Jovi, and a panel appearance by Frank Zappa), and featured irreverent comedy bits with a cast of regulars that included future talk-show hosts Richard Belzer (Hot Properties) and Arsenio Hall (you know).
Why It Failed: A strange mixture of sky-high expectations and low awareness. Thicke was produced by Fred Silverman, the boisterous showman who ran NBC for three disastrous years in the late 1970s, and his run-ins with Carson during that period seemed to fuel an overblown advance campaign for Thicke of the Night, in which Silverman hyped his new host as “the Second Coming of comedy.” Critics were unconvinced, and the reviews were brutal; People dubbed Thicke “less a threat to Carson than to the sleeping pill industry.” And since Americans had only heard of Thicke in the context of those reviews, they had little motivation to tune in – so they didn’t. MGM cancelled the show in June 1984, at the conclusion of its first season; a year and change later, Thicke found the American stardom that had eluded him when he began his seven-season stint as the star of Growing Pains.
The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers
Length Of Run: Seven months (1986-1987)
The Show: The fledgling Fox network’s very first program was a bold attempt to topple a television icon – with his permanent guest host at the helm. Joan Rivers was a longtime fixture on Carson’s Tonight Show as both guest and host during his frequent nights off, and other networks had attempted to lure her away for years. But according to Rivers, it was only NBC and Carson Productions’ refusal to make any promises about her future on the show – including the possibility of taking over upon Carson’s retirement – that made her take this one seriously. So in fall of 1986, she debuted an hour of guests, music, and her inimitable gab.
Why It Failed: Bad PR and ratings. Carson, who had given his tacit blessing to other guests-turned-competitors like Thicke, David Brenner, and Joey Bishop, was furious about Rivers’ departure, and the whispers about their bitter break-up grew so loud, Rivers had to take to the pages of People to defend herself. But the damage was done; Rivers’ departure was framed as an ungrateful betrayal, a narrative no doubt fueled by the implicit sexism she was already battling as the first female host of a late-night talk show. The bad buzz made station clearances for the nascent network even more difficult – which led to lousy ratings, and thus less executive patience for the creative battles being waged by Rivers’ husband Edgar, who was also the show’s executive producer. Fox finally pulled the plug on the show in May of 1987, and began a rotation of guest hosts to fill the hour until its replacement was ready to air.
The Wilton North Report
Length Of Run: Four weeks (1987-1988)
The Show: An irreverent hybrid of newsmagazine, talk show, and comedy variety hour, hosted not by a Wilton or North, but by Phil Cowan and Paul Robins.
Why It Failed: Wilton North battled two big problems in its month-long run. First of all, its kinda-news, kinda-not format confused late-night viewers, who weren’t quite ready for a full-length satirical newscast (The Daily Show was still years in the distance). And secondly, when it debuted, Fox viewers had just settled in with a personality they liked: Arsenio Hall, who had filled in as a Late Show guest host and ended up keeping the job for the last 13 weeks of its run, quickly building the show’s profile and ratings. But by then, Fox had already committed to Wilton North, and chose, fatefully, to keep that commitment; when it tanked, they tried (and failed) to get Hall back. Instead, he signed a deal with Paramount for a syndicated series – which became one of the few successful Tonight Show competitors of the era.