Publish date:
Updated on

Conan O’Brien makes final appearance as “Tonight Show” host

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.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!


Ted Kaczynski pleads guilty to bombings

On this day in 1998, in a Sacramento, California, courtroom, Theodore J. Kaczynski pleads guilty to all federal charges against him, acknowledging his responsibility for a 17-year campaign of package bombings attributed to the “Unabomber.” Born in 1942, Kaczynski attended more

First Russian Revolution begins

In Russia, the revolution of 1905 begins when czarist troops open fire on a peaceful group of workers marching to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to petition their grievances to Czar Nicholas II. Some 500 protestors were massacred on “Bloody Sunday,” setting off months of more

Sakharov arrested in Moscow

In Moscow, Andrei Dmitriyevich Sakharov, the Soviet physicist who helped build the USSR’s first hydrogen bomb, is arrested after criticizing the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. He was subsequently stripped of his numerous scientific honors and banished to remote more

Queen Victoria dies

The death of Queen Victoria on January 22, 1901, ends an era in which most of her British subjects know no other monarch. Her 63-year reign, the longest in British history, saw the growth of an empire on which the sun never set. Victoria restored dignity to the English monarchy more

British colonists reach New Zealand

Under the leadership of British statesman Edward G. Wakefield, the first British colonists to New Zealand arrive at Port Nicholson on Auckland Island. In 1642, Dutch navigator Abel Tasman became the first European to discover the South Pacific island group that later became known more

Supreme Court legalizes abortion

In a historic decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Roe v. Wade that women, as part of their constitutional right to privacy, can terminate a pregnancy during its first two trimesters. Only during the last trimester, when the fetus can survive outside the womb, would states more

Lyndon Baines Johnson dies in Texas

On this day in 1973, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson dies in Johnson City, Texas, at the age of 64. After leaving the White House in 1968, L.B.J. returned to his beloved home state, Texas, with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, and immersed himself in the activity dearest to more

Plane crashes at Nigerian airport

On this day in 1973, a plane returning Muslim pilgrims from Mecca crashes in Kano, Nigeria, killing 176 people. It was the deadliest air disaster of its time. The Royal Jordanian Boeing 707-300 was chartered by Nigeria Airways to take Muslims in Nigeria on a pilgrimage to Mecca more

Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade was a landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s legal right to an abortion. The Court ruled, in a 7-2 decision, that a woman’s right to choose an abortion was protected by the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. more

John McCausland dies

On this day in 1927, Confederate General John A. McCausland dies at age 90 inWest Virginia. He lived for over 50 years after the war and remained an unreconstructed Rebel at the time of his death. Nicknamed “Tiger John,” McCausland was born to Irish immigrants in 1836 in St. more