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The Late Show is an Americanmarker late-night talk show and the first series broadcast on the then-fledgling FOX Network. Originally hosted by comic actress Joan Rivers, it first aired on October 9, 1986 under the title The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.


The talk show was a direct attempt at competing against NBC's seminal The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and in fact Rivers had been for the previous few years the permanent guest host on Tonight, substituting for Carson.

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 Spring 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. When Rivers saw it, she was shocked to see that she was nowhere on the list despite the fact that she had been The Tonight Show's permanent guest host since 1983.

Another rumor is that soon after, when Carson decided to stay beyond 1987, NBC offered him a three-year contract extension – but only offered Rivers a one-year extension as guest host.

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 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.

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 him before the announcement was made because she was afraid FOX would cancel the deal if word leaked out. However, Carson was furious.

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. 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.

Rivers spoke highly of Carson the night he died on January 23, 2005, but revealed that he never spoke to her again. She maintains that she handled things the right way by not telling Carson of her plans ahead of time.


Sagging ratings

After a moderate start, ratings for the talk show soon sagged. The behind-the-scenes relations between Rivers and network executives quickly eroded and Rivers was eventually fired in early 1987. Soon afterward the program was renamed The Late Show and featured several hosts including Suzanne Somers, Richard Belzer, and Robert Townsend. Eventually, Arsenio Hall was named the permanent replacement host in mid-1987.

Arsenio Hall

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 and scheduled, which meant that the deal would not be extended beyond that. (Further, Hall would not be available as he was committed to filming the Eddie Murphy feature Coming to America.)

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' tenure – 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).

When problems developed with Wilton North, FOX attempted to bring back Hall – but it was too late. Wilton North debuted on December 11, 1987 and was a disaster on all counts. FOX quickly started airing Late Show repeats with Hall on January 11, 1988 and scrambled to revive the talk show.

1988 hosts

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.

But FOX's attempt to strike lightning in a bottle again – in the vein of the Arsenio Hall pick – didn't pan out. Instead, the network turned to Seattle TV personality Ross Shafer to take over The Late Show.

Ross Shafer

By the time Shafer began hosting, ratings 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 more on tabloid and ripped-from-the-headline stories.

When that failed, FOX canceled the show on October 28, getting out of late night altogether – until 1993, when it launched the even more ill-fated The Chevy Chase Show.

Notable episodes

Despite the show's low ratings by 1988, Shafer's tenure as host produced three notable episodes. These are especially notable for being the last public appearances of well-known celebrities:

  • A reunion of the cast of Gilligan's Island aired on May 18, 1988. This featured a custom set, audience members and a barbershop quartet singing the theme, cast member trivia, and more. This would be the last appearance of all the regular cast members together – Jim Backus, suffering from Parkinson's Disease, died in July 1989, while Alan Hale Jr. died in January 1990 and Natalie Schafer passed in April 1991.

  • A "Game Show Hosts" special featuring Gene Rayburn, Gary Owens, Tom Kennedy, Dennis James, and Jim Lange, plus Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows author Fred Wostbrock. Various clips were shown (including rare footage of James' Name That Tune), however there were some glaring omissions – no mention was made that James and Kennedy both hosted The Price is Right, while Name That Tune was hosted by James, Kennedy, and Lange (clips were shown of all three on their respective versions, making the latter omission much more jarring than the former). James passed away in 1997, while Rayburn died in 1999.


The Arsenio Hall Show launched on January 3, 1989, and ironically Hall - who had sealed a deal with Paramount TV Distribution to launch his own show - was able to clear it on many Fox affiliates throughout the country. This meant that he essentially reclaimed his old time period, although not as part of the network.

Ross Shafer went on to host a revival of Match Game for ABC in 1990, while the title of The Late Show was revived by CBS in 1993 for The Late Show With David Letterman.

See also

External links

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