On this day in 2010, comedian Conan O’Brien hosts his final episode of “The Tonight Show,” following an announcement by NBC earlier in the month that Jay Leno would return as the host of the long-running, late-night program. The decision to replace O’Brien was met with protests by his fans and became a public-relations debacle for the network.
In its early years “The Tonight Show,” which debuted in 1954, was hosted by entertainers including Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Under Johnny Carson, who assumed hosting duties in 1962, the program, with its opening monologue, celebrity interviews, musical performances and comedy sketches, became a late-night institution for millions of Americans. When Carson retired in 1992 he was replaced by Leno. On September 27, 2004, the 50th anniversary of the show’s launch, NBC announced O’Brien would take over from Leno in 2009.
Born in Massachusetts in 1963, O’Brien graduated from Harvard University and went on to work as a writer for such television shows as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.” In 1993, the lanky redhead began hosting his own TV show on NBC, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” which followed “The Tonight Show.” After recording the final “Late Night” show on February 20, 2009, O’Brien and his staff relocated from New York City to Los Angeles for “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” which premiered on June 1, 2009.
Meanwhile, Leno went on to helm his own weeknight comedy series in primetime. However, the program earned less-than-stellar ratings, and after a strong start O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” ratings also slumped. In early January 2010, NBC executives proposed rearranging the late-night lineup: Leno would host a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m. ET (the long-standing start time for “Tonight Show”) while “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien” would move to 12:05 a.m. O’Brien objected to this plan, publicly stating on January 12: “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.’”
O’Brien’s fans held rallies outside NBC studios in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities and organized an “I’m with CoCo” online support movement. Nevertheless, on January 21 it was reported that O’Brien had reached a deal with NBC worth more than $30 million to leave “The Tonight Show.” His last episode aired the following night and included guests Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell and Neil Young. During the program O’Brien said: “Walking away from ‘The Tonight Show’ is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. …Every comedian dreams of hosting ‘The Tonight Show’ and, for seven months, I got to. I did it my way, with people I love, and I do not regret a second.”
Leno returned as host of “The Tonight Show” on March 1, 2010. On November 8 of that year, O’Brien launched a new late-night program, “Conan,” on cable channel TBS. A book about the “Tonight Show” conflict, titled “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy” by New York Times reporter Bill Carter, was published that same month.