Leno to Retire from 'Tonight Show' in 2009
Mon Sep 27, 2004 08:26 PM ET
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jay Leno, America's leading late-night comedian as host of NBC's 'The Tonight Show,' will retire in 2009 and be replaced by Conan O'Brien, the offbeat comic whose own show airs an hour later, the network said on Monday.
Leno, 54, was to officially break the news to viewers on Monday's broadcast marking the 50th anniversary of 'The Tonight Show,' a television institution he inherited from Johnny Carson in 1992.
In a statement issued by NBC, Leno, said he had been planning to turn the program over to O'Brien since March, when Leno extended his own contract for another five years to 2009.
O'Brien, 41, hosts NBC's 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien,' which is aired at 12:30 a.m., following 'The Tonight Show.'
"In 2009, I'll be 59 years old and will have had this dream job for 17 years," Leno said. "When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan.
''Plus, I promised (my wife) Mavis I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60."
O'Brien signed a new contract on Monday that keeps him at 'Late Night' for five years and guarantees he will succeed Leno in 2009. No financial terms were disclosed, but media reports have valued Leno's contract at more than $20 million a year.
"'The Tonight Show' is one of the great franchises in television, and I am thrilled to get this opportunity," O'Brien said. "I am particularly grateful to Jay for all the generous support and kindness he has always shown me."
An NBC spokeswoman said no decision has been made about replacing O'Brien or whether 'The Tonight Show,' now filmed in Burbank, California, would move to New York, home of O'Brien's 'Late Night' show.
MORE LIKE LETTERMAN?
But the choice of the quirky, red-haired O'Brien, known for self-deprecating, ironic, humor and once a writer for Fox television's 'The Simpsons,' signaled a likely change in direction for 'The Tonight Show.'
Leno continued the basic format and style Carson was known for during nearly 30 years -- an opening monologue followed by interviews with celebrity guests and musical performances. He added flourishes of his own, such as the "Jay-Walking" bit in which a camera follows him onto the streets of Hollywood to show how little ordinary passersby know about current events, geography and history.
But critics see O'Brien's brand of humor as hewing closer to that of Leno's late-night TV rival David Letterman, who jumped to CBS in 1993 after Leno beat him out as Carson's successor.
"I think if you put Conan on at 11:30 right now, you'd have a lot of Leno viewers scratching their heads over the self-pleasuring bear and Triumph the Dog (a foul-mouthed dog puppet)," said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University.
"But by 2009, most of the audience that doesn't get Conan probably is not going to be up until 11:30 anyway."
O'Brien's ascension to the "Tonight Show" throne also will add a new dimension to the late-night rivalry between NBC and CBS.
Letterman initially beat Leno in the ratings war. But following actor Hugh Grant's 'Tonight Show' appearance after his highly publicized 1995 encounter with a prostitute, NBC settled in as the consistently more watched network at 11:30.
In recent years, the late-night talk show circuit has become a favorite campaign stop for politicians. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously declared his candidacy on Leno's program last year.
O'Brien will become the fourth permanent host of 'The Tonight Show.' The program debuted in 1954 with Steve Allen, who was succeeded in 1957 by Jack Paar. Carson took over in 1962.
* Didn't you know? All O'Briens are related! We're the "Smiths" of Irish names!