'Tonight Show' Battles: a Timeline of Contending Hosts
For more than two decades, Jay Leno has had to grapple with Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and, now, Jimmy Fallon, for his seat behind the desk.
This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
After 30 years of making the Tonight Show TV’s most profitable (earning NBC $200 million yearly in the mid-’70s), Johnny Carson, then 66, bows out May 21 with 50 million viewers. Bette Midler sings “Here’s That Rainy Day.”
Chosen over heir apparent David Letterman, Jay Leno hosts his first Tonight Show on May 25, noting to The New York Times that “Dave and I are good friends.” Eight months later, his job is shaky as NBC considers matching CBS’ offer to Letterman.
Letterman accepts CBS’ bid and moves his late-night show from NBC to The Ed Sullivan Theater, reportedly receiving $16 million to Leno’s $3 million. His debut features the same first guest as on his NBC incarnation: Bill Murray.
Leno beats Letterman for the first time with a Nielsen rating of 10.2 on July 10, when Hugh Grant atones for his publicized arrest for lewd conduct with sex worker Divine Brown. Leno’s first question to Grant: “What the hell were you thinking?”
After 16 years of following Leno with Late Night, Conan O’Brien succeeds him on June 1 as Tonight Show host for eight months. His debut brings 9.2 million viewers and a Will Ferrell intro: “That guy? Literally, no
one thought you could do it!”
When O’Brien protests moving Tonight to midnight to make way for Leno in its 11:35 p.m. slot, NBC offers him a $45 million buyout. O’Brien’s last show closes with “Free Bird” and his best ratings of more than 10 million viewers.
Leno's return to the Tonight Show on March 1 begins a decline in ratings, slipping below O’Brien’s Tonight and leading to Letterman beating him in October. In the opening monologue, Leno jokes, “I’m Jay Leno, your host at least for a while.”
O’Brien’s Nov. 10 debut of Conan on TBS pulls in 4.1 million viewers, beating Leno’s Tonight Show on NBC and Letterman’s Late Show on CBS. But O’Brien soon slips behind Leno and the rest.
In March, as news breaks of Jimmy Fallon’s replacing him, Leno skewers NBC’s ratings. Fallon later teases on Late Night, “NBC is turning the Tonight Show into a diving competition.”