The Late Show was a FOX network late-night talk show which was originally hosted by comic\actress Joan Rivers and the first program broadcast on the then-new Fox Network.
The show first premiered on October 9, 1986 under the title "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers". Later hosts of the show consisted of Buck Henry, Arsenio Hall and Ross Shaffer.
After two seasons on the air, the show ended on October 28, 1988.
"The Late Show" was a direct attempt at competing against NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" where Joan Rivers had been Carson's permanent guest host since 1983. The show was initially broadcast live.
Many in 1986 (including top executives at NBC) thought it was possible that Johnny Carson would retire after reaching his 25th anniversary on October 1, 1987, as it was such a logical cut-off point.
In the spring of 1986, a confidential memo between top NBC executives listing about 10 possible replacements in the event of Carson's retirement the next year was leaked. Rivers was shocked to see that she was not on the list.
In an article she wrote for People magazine, Rivers said that NBC offered her only a one-year contract in 1985 as permanent guest host while Carson's contract had been renewed for two years which signaled to her that her future was uncertain as her previous one year contracts had run the same length as Carson's.
In addition, Rivers noted numerous snubs from NBC executives over the years, such as not being invited to the annual Carson party until recently, and taking the fall for a controversial joke that management approved during rehearsal.
Rivers had received higher-paying offers from other networks in prior years but declined them out of her loyalty to Carson, but in 1986 as NBC was unwilling to give assurances on her future and negotiations were fruitless, this was the impetus for Rivers to seriously consider the Fox offer.
Rivers and Carson
Fox was looking for a host for a late-night talk show for the network's launch in October 1986 and offered Joan Rivers the job at a salary higher than what NBC was paying. She accepted and Carson was blindsided by the news when he saw the press conference on television. Moments later, when Rivers called him at home, he refused to take the call.
Carson was furious when he found out about Rivers going to Fox. Carson stated that he felt betrayed by Rivers, not because she dared to compete with him, but because she was not honest with him beforehand about her intentions and did not ask him for advice and his blessing.
For her part, Rivers was adamant that her problem was with NBC and not with Carson, who was like a father figure to her. She stated that she didn't want to tell Carson before the announcement was made because she was afraid Fox would cancel the deal if word leaked out.
Rivers had previously been ordered by Carson's producers and lawyers not to go to him with her problems, as they kept Carson completely insulated since he was a major source of NBC profits, thus Carson had been completely unaware of Rivers' problems with NBC.
When others obtained their own competing shows (such as David Brenner, Alan Thicke, Joey Bishop, and Pat Sajak), Carson always had them on "The Tonight Show" beforehand to wish them luck – and again after he had forced their show into cancellation by maintaining superior ratings.
Rivers did not appear on the "Tonight Show" again during the remainder of Carson's tenure after 1986 or during that of his successors until February 17, 2014 when she appeared in a cameo on Jimmy Fallon's first show.
Rivers spoke highly of Carson the night he died on January 23, 2005, but revealed that he never spoke to her again.
Sagging ratings and carriage refusals
After a moderate start, ratings for "The Late Show" soon sagged.
The ratings struggles also made it hard for Fox to attract affiliates for its primetime launch on April 5, 1987. Some prospective affiliates (such as Milwaukee's WCGV-TV) would only sign with the network if they did not have to carry "The Late Show."
KPTM in Omaha refused outright out of loyalty to Johnny Carson (who hailed from Corning, Iowa, east of Omaha and started his career on local radio and television).
The network acquiesced to allow some stations out of that obligation so that the network launched in primetime with as many affiliates as possible, at the cost of ratings and access to "The Late Show."
For instance, at the time the show launched Fox had not closed on its purchase of its Boston station, WXNE-TV (now WFXT). That station's previous owners, the Christian Broadcasting Network objected to the show's content and refused to clear it. As a result, until Fox took control of the station in January, its audio feed aired on a low-rated AM station.
The behind-the-scenes relations between Joan Rivers & the network executives quickly erode and she was eventually fired in May 1987.
For the final show (which aired May 15, 1987), the set was vandalized with toilet paper, slime and shaving cream. Her guests were Howie Mandel, Pee-Wee Herman, then-fledgling comedian Chris Rock, Wendy O. Williams, and show stage manager Michelle Aller as her alter-ego Mavis Vegas Davis.
Soon afterward, the program was renamed "The Late Show" and featured rotating guest hosts including Suzanne Somers, Richard Belzer and Robert Townsend.
After firing prospective guest host Frank Zappa, producer John Scura replaced him with Arsenio Hall, who made his debut as a talk show host. Eventually, Hall was named the permanent replacement host in mid-1987.
The Howard Stern Show
On April 16, 1987, a meeting was held between Howard Stern and management of WNYW, Fox's flagship television station. The network was considering Stern as replacement to "The Late Show."
Five one-hour pilots titled The Howard Stern Show were recorded at a cost of about $400,000. They featured rock guitarist Leslie West of Mountain fame as band leader and Steve Rossi as announcer and singer.
By early June, air dates were yet to be scheduled; the pilots were instead being tested among focus groups in California.
With no formal announcement, in July, the network decided not to put the Stern show on the air. Paul Noble, the former executive producer for WNYW, was never told of Fox's decision. "By today's standards, they were absolutely tame." He also said, "They were not the kind of thing that a local New York television station was prepared to get involved with at that time. It was more like off-the-wall radio."
Fox had originally cancelled "The Late Show", but executives were stunned by the success of Hall, who was performing well among adults 18–49. In return, Hall was given a 13-week deal to host the show, however, a replacement program entitled "The Wilton North Report" was already in pre-production & scheduled which meant that the deal would not be extended beyond that.
Further, Arsenio Hall would not be available in any event because he was committed to filming the Eddie Murphy feature film "Coming to America." During the monologue of his final appearance as host, Hall stated that the reason he had agreed to only do 13 weeks was because that was as long as he was able to stay as he had plans "to do other things."
Clint Holmes continued as announcer while Mark Hudson remained as band leader. However, the band's name changed from "Mark Hudson and the Party Boys featuring the Tramp" (as it had been known during Rivers's tenure, with "the Tramp" referring to baritone sax player Beverly Dahlke-Smith) to simply "Mark Hudson and the Late Show Band".
Guests tended to be third-string actors, with performances by lesser-known bands such as The Williams Brothers (Los Angeles) and The Amazing Pink Things (Seattle).
World Famous "Earthquake Astrologer from KROQ and KFOX," Farley Malorrus was on after an accurate Quake Prediction in Los Angeles in October 1987.
When problems developed with "Wilton North", Fox attempted to bring back Arsenio Hall, but it was too late.
"Wilton North" debuted on December 11, 1987 and was a disaster on all fronts. Fox canceled it after only 21 episodes on January 8, 1988. It started airing "Late Show" repeats with both Hall and Rivers on January 11, 1988 and scrambled to revive the talk show.
The show came back with a new group of unknown guest hosts including comedians Jeff Joseph and John Mulrooney; Daniel Rosen took over as announcer while Jack Mack and the Heart Attack became the new house band.
These hosts would not work out and the network turned to Seattle TV personality Ross Shafer to take over "The Late Show."
By the time Shafer began hosting, the ratings for "The Late Show" were so low that the show could only attract newsmakers and human interest-style guests; this led to a format change in the summer to focus on tabloid and ripped-from-the-headline stories.
Fox canceled the show on October 28, 1988, getting out of late night until 1993, when it launched the ill-fated "The Chevy Chase Show."