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'Tonight Show' Battles: a Timeline of Contending Hosts

Leno Hugh Grant Tonight Show - H 2013
AP Photo/Eric Draper
Hugh Grant, left, chats with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" in 1995.

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.

1992

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.”

1992

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.

PHOTOS: Before Burbank: 5 Portraits of 'The Tonight Show' in New York

1993

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.

1995

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?”

2009

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!”

STORY: The War on Jay Leno

2010

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.

2010

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.”

PHOTOS: Jimmy Fallon: From Early 'SNL' to Movie Star to 'Late Night'

2010

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.

2013

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.”