This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the debut of “The Jay Leno Show”. That’s right, it’s been a decade since Jay Leno briefly went from Late Night to Primetime. The shake-up has been considered one of the biggest flaws in television history.
In 2004, 12 years into Leno’s run, NBC announced that “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien would take over for Leno in five years. But in the middle of that five-year span, NBC decided they didn’t want to fully let Leno go. So they concocted “The Jay Leno Show”: a new, hour-long talk show every weeknight at 10pm. NBC thought it would be cheaper, and more profitable, to produce and air this instead of sitcoms or dramas.
On May 29, 2009, Leno said goodbye to “Tonight”: “People ask me, ‘Oh – what are you gonna do after the last show? Are you gonna go on vacation?’ Actually, I’m gonna be going to a secluded spot where no one can find me: NBC Primetime. I admit, it’s a gamble. I’m betting everything that NBC will still be around in three months. That is not a given!”
Leno’s final guest on that Friday evening: O’Brien. Leno told Ellen DeGeneres days earlier that he felt it was important for the transition to be a smooth one, unlike what happened with Letterman in the ‘90s. “It… was handled poorly,” Leno said.
NBC gave Leno the summer off. On Monday June 1, 2009, O’Brien began hosting the most prestigious talk program on TV. As a 10-year-old, I had been watching Leno for years. My mother would record some of the segments, including celebrity interviews and skits, on VHS tapes, and I would watch them either the next morning or after school. Leno was upbeat, quick and funny – and his Monday night Headlines segments were my favorites.
To be honest, I wasn’t a huge O’Brien fan. I didn’t care for his sillier, edgier material. I remember watching his first “Tonight Show” that June. I certainly wished him well, but I thought, “I don’t actually think I’m interested in watching this too often.”
It seems like America agreed. Starting a show in the summertime isn’t easy, but by Fall, O’Brien’s ratings were below Letterman (“The Tonight Show” was second for the first time). And after the initial hoopla of “The Jay Leno Show” (which only differed slightly from Leno’s “Tonight Show”), those ratings were sinking too, impacting NBC as a whole – and their affiliates’ 11pm newscasts.
So the network came-up with this idea: a 30-minute Leno show at 11:35, then O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” at 12:05, and then “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” at 1:05. O’Brien didn’t like that idea and decided to part ways with NBC. Leno got “The Tonight Show” back, and Fallon stayed at 12:35.
It was an ugly few months in the press, especially during January and February 2010. I remember watching it all play out: O’Brien lashing out at NBC for basically showing him the door after barely giving him a chance to succeed. Leno, meantime, made quips at the network for the whole 10pm thing.
NBC got scared. They didn’t know what it was like to be in second, so they needed to bring their No. 1 guy back. And I’m glad they did, as I got to be on the revival of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” twice, in February 2011 and 2012.
Leno is a great guy who understands the business and is very human. “I’m a realist,” he told “60 Minutes” in 2014. He also did plenty of jabbing again when Fallon was getting ready to take over. But he set the record straight to DeGeneres: “Last time I was told, this time I was asked.”
And now, 10 years after O’Brien’s stint and 5 years after Fallon’s “Tonight” start, we’re in an interesting position again. Fallon has been second, behind Stephen Colbert, for nearly two years.
Right now, it doesn’t look like NBC is eager to give the more politically charged Seth Meyers “The Tonight Show”. And Leno has no interest in being pulled back in again. However, the network is kicking off a new 1:35am show, “A Little Late with Lily Singh”. The YouTuber takes over for Carson Daly, who ended his long-running program earlier this year.
How will the late night lineup look in another five years? One thing’s for certain: it’s not gonna spill over into primetime.
(Photo Credit: The Hollywood Reporter)