“Saturday Night Live” veteran Jimmy Fallon was officially named on Monday to take Conan O’Brien’s place on NBC next year when O’Brien succeeds Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show.”
The announcement, which had been expected for weeks, was made during a press event from NBC headquarters in New York where O’Brien’s “Late Night” show is taped.
The appointment of Fallon, long considered a leading contender for NBC’s 12:35 a.m. time slot, completes a talent shuffle set in motion when the network announced in 2004 that Leno would retire from “Tonight” in 2009 and that O’Brien would replace him. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
“It’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be hard, but I’m going to go at it full force,” the boyish-looking Fallon told reporters on a conference call. “The fact that I’m stepping into David Letterman and Conan O’Brien’s shoes is very exciting.”
Fallon said he also was excited to go back to work for Lorne Michaels, who was his boss as producer of “Saturday Night Live” and whose company co-produces “Late Night.”
Asked how much his new job would pay, Fallon joked, “I keep asking Lorne and he’s telling me not to worry about.
“They’re paying me enough,” he said. “I just want to live comfortably in Dubai.”
Fallon, 33, appeared on “SNL” for six seasons and was co-host of its “Weekend Update” segment. He left the program to focus on making feature films, although such efforts as “Fever Pitch” and “Taxi” fell flat at box offices.
His impending move to “Late Night” stems from a development deal he signed with NBC in early 2007.
Hammering out transitionMany details of the transition among nighttime TV hosts remain to be worked out, including exactly when the changes will take place.
NBC’s plan is to have O’Brien move west to take over for Leno at the “Tonight” show next year. After a break to refurbish the Rockefeller Center studio where O’Brien now works, Fallon will take over.
The transition is being managed by Michaels, who famously picked O’Brien out of obscurity to fill Letterman’s old slot at NBC, then stuck with him despite savage early reviews.
But Fallon should have an easier time of it, Michaels noted.
“You’re never really certain of these things, but I just think he’s built for it,” Michaels said. “You’ve just seen that he’s really funny, he’s smart and he has a really, really good work ethic.”
Despite its prime-time woes, NBC has managed to maintain its late-night dominance in the ratings, although O’Brien has been challenged lately by Craig Ferguson on CBS. Now it is attempting a tricky transition based on a promise made nearly four years ago that O’Brien would succeed Leno.
Leno continues to be the king of late-night, and NBC is trying to keep him at NBC Universal with some job other than “Tonight” host. If NBC were to renege on the deal made to O’Brien, the “Late Night” host would reportedly be owed a penalty fee of about $40 million.
Jeff Zucker, NBC president and CEO, would not comment Monday on the state of talks with Leno, or what NBC is offering. Leno would undoubtedly draw interest from ABC and Fox if he wanted to work the same hours.
“That’s something he’s got to decide and I think that’s the question,” Zucker said. “That’s a good question. I don’t think he knows.”
It was Rick Ludwin, chief late-night executive at NBC, who said he raised the idea of a talk show future with Fallon in 2003. He’d watch Fallon talk comfortably backstage with Hollywood stars and stagehands alike, and those simple conversational skills are crucial to the job.
Still, there are plenty of details to work out, including the show’s format and whether he has a sidekick or band.
“I’m not sure I’m going to reinvent the wheel with the talk-show format,” Fallon said. “There’s no need.”
Besides being a personable character the audience enjoys, a prospective talk show host needs to commit to the hard work, the NBC executives said. At least for the first few months, Fallon will be working five nights a week because no reruns are built up.
“I really plan to give my all on this,” Fallon said. “My wife, she left me a note this morning saying, ‘Nice knowing you.”’
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.