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2009: Conan O'Brien Takes Over 'The Tonight Show'
June 1, 2012  | By Christy Slewinski
On this day in 2009, former Late Night with Conan O'Brien host Conan O'Brien took the reigns of the storied late show, The Tonight Show, from Jay Leno.

O'Brien's Tonight Show was an amalgamation of his Late Night program and the Johnny Carson/Jay Leno Tonight Show, featuring a monologue, comedy skits, guest interviews, musical performances and appearances by O'Brien's Late Night sidekick, Andy Richter, and the (renamed) Late Show band, Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band. The first and last guest on O'Brien's Tonight Show was actor/comedian Will Ferrell.

NBC had named O'Brien the Tonight Show heir apparent on September 27, 2004, indicating that he would take over for the retiring Leno in 2009. As Leno's step-down date grew closer, however, it was reported that Leno had decided against retirement. In December, 2008, NBC announced Leno would host a new prime-time show, The Jay Leno Show, weeknights at 10 p.m.

Ultimately, The Jay Leno Show failed to attract a strong audience, and many NBC affiliates saw their late local news ratings drop significantly. NBC decided to condense Leno's show into a 30-minute program, and move it into the 11:35 p.m weeknight time slot.

Two days after NBC announced that it was moving Leno's show and bumping O'Brien's Tonight Show to 12:05 p.m., O'Brien released the following heartfelt statement:

People of Earth:

In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky. That said, I’ve been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.

Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004, I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the “Jay Leno Show” at 11:35. For 60 years, the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard, and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet, a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.

Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.



Ten months after leaving The Tonight Show, O'Brien returned to late night as the host of Conan on TBS.

On May 17, 2012, O'Brien appeared on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman and talked about the Tonight Show debacle. Here are a few excerpts:

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