Conan O'Brien is getting his chance to move up in the world. Or at least into an earlier time slot.
On Monday, Jay Leno announced that he had selected O'Brien to take over his Tonight Show gig when he steps down in 2009, thereby avoiding the competitive drama and negativity that accompanied his own ascendance to the Tonight Show throne.
Monday marked the 50th anniversary of The Tonight Show, which Leno inherited from Johnny Carson in 1992.
On the anniversary show, Leno recalled that "a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged" when he was selected to succeed Carson over rival David Letterman, spawning a feud that lives on between the two late night yakkers.
"Quite frankly, I don't want to see anybody go through that again," Leno said.
Leno's announcement was surprising, as the host is well known as a work horse who rarely takes a breather. He never missed a show until he and Today Show gabber Katie Couric swapped hosting gigs in an NBC sweeps stunt last year. On his nights off, Leno performs standup comedy routines in Los Angeles comedy clubs.
But it seems even the current king of late night can't reign forever.
"In 2009, I'll be 59 years old and will have had this dream job for 17 years," Leno said in a statement Monday.
"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."
Leno said he consulted his good friend Jerry Seinfeld about life after small screen dominance. (Seinfeld, like Leno, in a known car aficionado.)
"You can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out while you're still doing good," Leno said on Monday night's show. "I'm not quitting show business, but I realized I'm not spending enough time with my cars."
When Leno debuted as host, viewers didn't take to him right off the bat. In fact, NBC reportedly came thisclose to firing him in 1993 and replacing him with Letterman after all. (Letterman reportedly declined the replacement offer.)
But Leno rebounded in the 1994-95 season and even nabbed an Emmy for Outstanding Host in a Variety, Music or Comedy series. Since then, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno has won the last nine seasons in late night ratings and averaged 5.8 million viewers in the season that ended last week.
In March, Leno signed a four-year contract extension with NBC worth an estimated $100 million and guaranteeing him the distinction of holding down the second-longest Tonight Show hosting slot, trailing Carson's 30 years on the job.
The Tonight Show first aired in 1954, with host Steve Allen, who played the piano and performed comedy sketches with guest stars?all on live television, a rare commodity these days.
Allen hosted the show through 1957, at which time Jack Paar took over the slot. Paar's most memorable moment as Tonight Show host came in 1960, when he stormed off the stage in protest of NBC's censorship of one of his jokes and stayed away for several weeks before returning. He stuck with the show until 1962, at which point Carson took the reins through 1992, becoming one of television's best-known personalities along the way.
On Monday's show, Leno paid homage to his predecessors, including a lengthy montage of Carson's most memorable moments as host.
"Johnny set the standard for how this job should be done," Leno said. "He was such a gentleman. He always had impeccable timing. He was the comedian's comedian. Those of us who do this for a living, we all owe him a tremendous debt."
With O'Brien set to slide into Leno's slot, NBC no longer has to worry about its Late Night funnyman jumping ship for a more coveted timeslot at another network?something O'Brien had alluded to in the past.
O'Brien has signed a new contract with NBC, extending his Late Night with Conan O'Brien gig for five more years, at which point he'll take over Tonight Show duties from Leno.
"This is a huge thing for me. This is something I've dreamt about for a long time," O'Brien said on Late Night Tuesday.
"I think people in comedy only can dream about something like this. I am incredibly humbled and thrilled to get this amazing opportunity and I did want to give my heartfelt thanks to everybody at NBC that made this possible and particularly to Jay Leno.
"Jay has been a big supporter of mine, a good friend to me for eleven years when I first showed up at this network. He's been incredibly kind and gracious about the whole thing. He's a class act. And so to everybody at NBC but particularly Jay Leno - a huge thank you and I hope I can live up to that challenge, but I have some time to figure it out," O'Brien said.
Before O'Brien's change of fortune at the Peacock, he had been rumored to be up for consideration for Craig Kilborn's vacated Late Late Show slot at CBS, putting him in line to eventually succeed Letterman.
O'Brien began his hosting career on Late Night spot at NBC after previous host Letterman hopped to CBS in 1993. He suffered through a dismal first few weeks as host, during which he was almost fired.
Gradually, through popular bits such as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, O'Brien revived the show, which averaged 2.5 million viewers during the 2003-04 season.
NBC execs were apparently relieved to lock down O'Brien for the network.
"It is a great accomplishment and testament to both Jay and Conan that we were able to all work together on a long-term plan for this important institution," NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker said in a statement.
"We look forward to more years of laughs from Jay and are thrilled to have Conan's future be as part of the NBC family."
(Originally published Sept. 27 2004, 12:15 p.m. PST)