UPDATE: In a statement to Us Weekly, Jay Leno’s rep tells Us: “If he made eye contact with her, he didn’t recognize it was Melissa. Had he done so, he would’ve come over to extend his condolences. He apologizes if she was offended, but he did not realize it was Melissa.”
Old feuds die hard. Joan Rivers had a lot of friends in Hollywood, but she also had a lot of foes — including, notably, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who inherited Johnny Carson‘s beef with the comedienne and carried out his predecessor’s late-night ban of her until Jimmy Fallon took over in 2014. The Fashion Police star died last September at age 81, but according to her daughter, Melissa Rivers, Leno’s grudge is very much alive.
Melissa, 47, opened up about the long-standing feud in an interview with Howard Stern — who gave the eulogy at Joan’s funeral — on Wednesday, May 6, during his SiriusXM radio show.
“The one person I do not understand — and I mean this, I’m not coming from any weird place — Joan was genuinely miffed that when Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show, Jay carried on Johnny’s hostility and wouldn’t have her on The Tonight Show,” Stern began. “No one’s better on The Tonight Show than Joan.”
(Indeed, the late icon was a frequent guest on the NBC staple back in the 1970s, and even took over as Carson’s permanent guest host in 1983. They had a falling out, however, when she left to host her own short-lived program on Fox a few years later.)
Melissa told Stern she actually had a near run-in with the Tonight Show alum a few months after Joan died — and it did not go well.
“My mother passed in September, and I was asked to speak at The Hollywood Reporter Women in Entertainment breakfast at the beginning of December, so it was very fresh,” she recalled. “And I got a text from Sarah Silverman the night before, saying, ‘Oh my god, are you aware Jay Leno’s at our table?’ And I said, ‘No, I [wasn’t],’ and I started to freak out. And she said, ‘I’ll take care of it.'”
Silverman kept her word, but Melissa ended up seeing Leno anyway. “The next morning — and this is literally my first public appearance — I walk in, and I’m standing, having a coffee in the reception area, and Jay…looks right at me, and looks away,” she told Stern.
No doubt a conversation between them would have been awkward at first, but Melissa nevertheless resents that he didn’t make an effort. “I sort of wrestled with this. Don’t you think you still walk over and say, ‘I’m so sorry about your loss, how are you doing?'” she asked. “Or, ‘I know there was an issue, but please accept my condolences.'”
She added, “It would have been closure, and it would have been the right thing to do.” The fact that he didn’t do it, she told Stern, made her question his character. “I just thought to myself, ‘You have no courage,'” she shared.
Leno, for his part, has said he maintained Carson’s ban on Joan “out of respect” for his predecessor. “I don’t think he wanted to see her on the show,” he told Access Hollywood in 2014.
By the time Carson died in 2005, things were “a little awkward,” he added. “By that point, Joan was going on and on about me…I like Joan. I mean, [she] was the first autograph I ever got.”
In any case, Leno’s successor, Saturday Night Live alum Fallon, lifted the ban in 2014, inviting Joan to appear in a star-studded sequence on his opening night that February. She returned again the following month for her first Tonight Show interview in 25 years.
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