In the course of writing a couple of Joan Rivers things for Yahoo!—here’s one thing, and here’s another— I wondered: If Joan Rivers vs. Johnny Carson was a war, did Joan Rivers, who without a doubt lost the late-night TV battle in the 1980s, win?
It’s not an easy question. It may even be an impossible question. It raises too many other questions, chiefly what’s winning? Is winning Carson dying without deigning to talk to Rivers after she left NBC to launch a rival show for Fox? Is winning Carson going down in obit history as the “king of late night?” Is winning Carson walking away from the spotlight and staying away? Is winning Rivers outliving Carson? Is winning Rivers outworking Carson? Is winning Rivers going out more pop-culturally relevant than Carson was when he passed?
In the end, what’s the difference? In the end, they both died. (And if the unsinkable Rivers can’t out make it out of here alive, then, sorry, folks, it’s official: We are all doomed.) In the end, there’s more sadness, I think, to Carson’s story than to Rivers’ even though Rivers’ certainly was not a laff-riot itself. But maybe just as an audience’s applause seemed to fill Rivers’ tank, maybe alone time fueled Carson’s. Maybe they both went out doing what they needed and wanted to do. Maybe they both won.
(But just between you and me, it feels, in this moment at least, that Rivers didn’t lose.)
P.S.: The above clip is a radio interview Rivers conducted this past winter with Carson’s former attorney and confidante, Henry Bushkin. It is a remarkable document of the Carson-Rivers years as told by two of the ultimate insiders. It’s also a remarkable testament to what a great interviewer Rivers was.