Conan O’Brien will Succeed Jay Leno on ‘Tonight’ Show

NBC: O’Brien will succeed Leno on ‘Tonight’ in 2009 (Hollywood Reporter)

NBC announced Monday that Conan O’Brien will take over from Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show.” But he’ll have time to write his jokes — the planned succession won’t happen until 2009.

The announcement solves a delicate problem for NBC, which realized O’Brien was getting antsy in his “Late Night” time slot (12:35 a.m. Eastern) and wanted to keep him from jumping to another network. Leno planned to make the announcement on Monday’s edition of “Tonight,” a special celebration of the talk show’s 50th anniversary. “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 Mavis I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60,” the notoriously workaholic Leno said about his wife.

Leno took over from Johnny Carson on “Tonight” in 1992 and after a few years of trailing the man he beat out for the job in the ratings — David Letterman — he passed the CBS star and has been dominant in the time slot. An unknown at the time, O’Brien had the thankless job of taking over from Letterman on “Late Night,” and he was nearly fired after several weeks of painful shows. But he recovered and has been a critical and commercial success. But O’Brien has openly talked about wanting to move on and, in the late-night world, that means an earlier time slot.

Interesting. Really, there’s no reason for Leno to step down this quickly–Carson had the show for nearly 30 years–but O’Brien is a logical successor.


“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,” said NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker. “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.” “Late night talent is a rare commodity,” echoed NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly. “Cultivating it and keeping it has always been a priority here and with this announcement, we couldn’t be in a better place.”

Conan O’Brien has signed a new contract with the network in a long-term deal that will keep him at the helm of the critically-acclaimed and top-rated “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” for the next five years and then has him taking over has host of “The Tonight Show” from Leno. “‘The Tonight Show’ is one of the great franchises in television and I am thrilled to get this opportunity,” said O’Brien. “I am thankful to everyone at NBC — which has been my home for the last eleven years — and I am particularly grateful to Jay for all the generous support and kindness he has always shown me.”


“The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” continues to dominate late night and has won nine television seasons in a row, 34 consecutive sweep months and 36 consecutive quarters (including ties) with its largest 18-49 audience in three years and its largest 18-34 audience in four years. In its eleven years on the air, “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” has dominated its time period, winning every quarter and every sweep month over that period. For the 2003-04 season, “Late Night” averaged 2.5 million viewers (nearly one million viewers ahead of its nearest competition) and won by a 71% margin among adults 18-49, its highest in five years and his adult 18-34 audience was “Late Night’s” biggest in six years.

On its 50th Anniversary, “The Tonight Show” continues to be the most dominant late night institution in television history. Since it first premiered on September 27, 1954 with Steve Allen, “The Tonight Show” has had just four permanent hosts, including Jay Leno. Allen, host of the then titled “Tonight,” eventually left late night to start his own primetime variety series on NBC. Jack Paar premiered on July 29, 1957. On October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson stepped on stage for day one of his nearly thirty-year tenure as host of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Jay Leno, who began guest-hosting “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in September 1987, became host of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on May 25, 1992. Conan O’Brien joined NBC as a writer on “Saturday Night Live” in 1988 and premiered as host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” on September 13, 1993.

Making the announcement five years ahead of time is rather interesting, in that a lot can happen over that period and it’s a bit strange to make Leno a lame duck with half a decade to go.

(Hat tips: Jeff Quinton and Jeff Jarvis)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jessica says:

    very interesting. i wonder what the quality of either of those shows will be in 5 years.

  2. Paul says:

    Oh gawd I hate that idiot. The only good news is that in another half decade I’ll officially be old enough that I’ll be asleep at that hour.

  3. Timmer says:

    I was kind of hoping for John Stewart from The Daily Show.

  4. Jessica says:

    maybe John Stewart will replace Conan.

  5. Maureen says:

    What’s going to happen to The Fruitcake Lady? I hope she will retain her segment on the show.