After he took (terribly unfunny) potshots for weeks at NBC during his monologues, Jay Leno’s tenure as host of The Tonight Show has finally come to an end.
Late Night host Jimmy Fallon has closed a deal with NBC to replace Leno in the 11:35 p.m. slot, taking over the reins of The Tonight Show, the network announced on Wednesday.
Its been heavily rumored that NBC was preparing an exit strategy for Leno, whose current contract expires in September 2014. And, given the media shitstorm that followed the Today show shakeup, it’s safe to say that the peacock network is handling the late-night transition with kid gloves. This is perhaps one reason why the network remained mum on the succession plan even as Leno laid into the network night after night during his monologue.
On April 1—April Fool’s Day—Leno, 62, and Fallon, 38, sang a mildly amusing on-air duet about all the late-night shake-up rumors. The video, which they’d teased to audiences the night before, suggests that the two funnymen are OK with all the hullabaloo. Then again, they may also have been pressured into doing it by their network, who must be none too happy with all the drama—especially in the wake of a recent New York magazine cover story recapping the Today show nightmare.
The late night rumors really began heating up on Feb. 28, when Leno mocked NBC for falling into fifth place among TV networks during the sweeps month of February—behind the Spanish-language network Univision.
“For the first time in history, NBC is going to finish fifth in the ratings period,” said Leno. “We are behind the Spanish-language network Univision—or as we call it here in Los Angeles: Cinco de Ratings.”
Leno continued ripping into NBC’s ratings decline to the point where, according to a report in The New York Times, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, “clashed” with Leno over the repeated barbs.
The warning seemed to go unheeded, as Leno continued his NBC assault. On March 18, he took his most vicious shot yet at the network, calling NBC executives “snakes” during his monologue.
“You know the whole legend of St. Patrick right? St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, and then they came into the United States and became NBC executives,” Leno quipped, met with an audience of groans.
A source told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday that some NBC execs want to launch Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show in February during their ratings-boosting coverage of the Winter Olympics, while others claim that the network is wary of any transition concerning the show’s hosts until a replacement for Fallon on Late Night is named. The frontrunner for that job, the source says, is rumored to be Seth Meyers, the head writer of Saturday Night Live and host of SNL’s Weekend Update. Meyers, 39, was brilliant as the keynote speaker of the White House Correspondents Association dinner in April 2011 and, like Fallon and Conan O’Brien before him, is a Lorne Michaels protégé, which makes him an ideal candidate for Late Night’s hosting duties.
“It will be Seth unless something goes awry [in the dealmaking],” a source close to the situation told THR.
All this jockeying over The Tonight Show chair is nothing new, however.
After 1991’s unexpected retirement announcement by Tonight’s longtime host, Johnny Carson, it was widely assumed that then–Late Night host David Letterman, who had been hosting the show after Carson’s since 1982, would take over, since he was Carson’s handpicked successor. However, after some maneuvering by Leno, his cagey manager, and NBC executives, Leno was named host of Tonight. Meanwhile, a crestfallen Letterman—whose lifelong dream was to follow in the footsteps of Carson—accepted a lucrative deal to host his own late-night show at CBS, The Late Show With David Letterman, which went head to head with Leno’s. New York Times media reporter Bill Carter chronicled the hostile takeover in his 1994 book, The Late Shift (which was subsequently adapted into a made-for-TV movie).
And, when Leno’s contract as Tonight Show host was about to expire in 2009, he decided to leave the program on May 29 of that year, with Late Night host Conan O’Brien taking over on June 1, 2009. Leno instead began hosting an hourlong variety show at 10 p.m. on NBC, but after his new show and O’Brien’s iteration of Tonight took ratings dips, NBC confirmed that on January 10, 2010, Leno would move out of primetime and back to late-night. According to TMZ, O’Brien was not warned of the shift and instead given two choices: move his Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m., or reach a deal to leave NBC.
O’Brien, stand-up guy that he is, chose to take a hefty buyout from NBC—to the tune of $33 million, as well as an additional $12 million for his staff—and moved to TBS.
“I 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,” read O’Brien’s press release.
And now, of course, more Leno drama.
There is a silver lining in all of this, however. The Tonight Show’s ratings have been up since Leno began his NBC-bashing routine.