It’s usually all smiles when talk show hosts appear on TV screens across the nation. Does that apply to life behind the scenes? You bet it doesn’t. Tensions with talk show hosts can rapidly rise, especially when it comes to each other.
Which legendary hosts had off-air beef? Please welcome onto the couch… this article.
Former Tonight Show host Jack Paar, who paved the way for Johnny Carson, made a joke that led to a colossal fallout. It was a vintage example of toilet humor from 1960. Mental Floss describes the content, part of Paar’s monologue.
He mentioned a “misunderstanding when a British tourist in Switzerland inquired about the ‘W.C.’ (meaning the water closet, or toilet) and receiving directions to Wayside Chapel in response.” Network NBC censored the funny. And if you think that was an overreaction, then Paar’s response was surprisingly emotional.
He walked offset the following night, live on air. Show announcer Hugh Downs had to take over, though the main man returned a few weeks later. EW notes that the high-profile incident “solidified his image as the hottest head in entertainment’s coolest medium.”
Leno no no
While Jay Leno doesn’t appear to have seriously feuded with anyone, he has been caught up in some well-publicized late-night controversies. There was tension with David Letterman after Leno succeeded Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show in 1992. He reportedly pipped Letterman, Carson’s preferred choice, to the post.
Speaking to Andy Cohen years later, Leno said this had been blown up by the media. “I am a huge fan” he revealed, calling Letterman “a great wordsmith” whose work he admired.
When Leno was due to leave the show in 2010, Conan O’Brien took over. However, the succession was short-lived. As reported by CBS, NBC “announced it was going to push The Tonight Show into tomorrow, and to give its traditional time slot back to O’Brien’s predecessor Jay Leno.” Conan went to cable and Leno resumed hosting duties on The Tonight Show until 2014.
Wrath of Winfrey
Never one to shy away from prodding a beehive in public, David Letterman “long had punch lines about how (Oprah) Winfrey refused to go on his show” writes the New York Post. They add he “launched an on-air campaign to get her in his chair.”
In 2013, Winfrey and Letterman set their differences aside and patched things up. But was there anything to patch up in the first place? Hmm, yes and no.
Taking an overview of the sorry situation, CheatSheet described how Oprah didn’t take kindly to the atmosphere when appearing on his Late Late Show during the 1980s. Feeling uncomfortable due to audience members who’d maybe had a drink or two before arriving, she aired her grievance and Letterman apologized.
Before this, Letterman was under the impression that Winfrey turned against him after a prank he pulled. Spotting her eating at the same restaurant, he proceeded to tell staff that she’d offered to pay his bill before fleeing the scene.
Another situation that Letterman may not have found so funny was the Tonight Show inheritance. As we mentioned, Jay Leno got the gig. Letterman was reportedly angry about the whole deal and remained so for years.
Embers were stoked in 2010, when Letterman made comments that Time described as “really quite scathing,” indicating that Leno is a “fraud, that his interviews are flimsy, and that he’s an uninteresting rich man draped in the flag of blue-collar America.”
Believe it or not, the pair were pals before then. That’s showbiz, right? Yet Letterman wasn’t above paying compliments to his late-night rival, as heard in 2019.
Johnny Carson was a fan of Joan Rivers. Until she decided to follow her own path, it seems. They first hit it off on-air in 1965. It was a pivotal moment for Rivers. “Almost immediately, she began booking high-profile gigs and appearances,” writes Biography, “and was hired as a Tonight Show show writer.”
Rivers felt not only grateful to Carson for their professional relationship, but also loyal. She knocked back other offers to stay on the Tonight team. However, she came to understand she wasn’t valued enough for a long-term contract. So, inevitably, she went to Fox, becoming the first woman to host late night.
She’d been a guest host for Carson and hoped to secure his seat someday. Now it was her time to shine elsewhere. He wasn’t happy, and took exception to the fact she hadn’t consulted him. Rivers reportedly attempted this but events moved faster than she anticipated.
According to Rivers, things were so bad that Carson hung up on her. The famously difficult king of late-night gave his competitor the cold shoulder.