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Leno promises smooth transition to O'Brien

‘Tonight Show’ host regrets animosity left in the wake of his hiring as Johnny Carson's replacement
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jay Leno’s takeover as host of NBC’s “Tonight” show in 1992 was fraught with drama and bad feelings, but he’s assured the next transition will be as smooth as his nightly sign-off: “Stay tuned for Conan.”

The comedian and NBC on Monday chose the 50th anniversary of the first “Tonight” show to set a special date for the 55th — when Leno will step down and Conan O’Brien becomes the fifth host of the television institution.

Announcing a transition in five years is odd for any business, let alone one that frequently plans from day-to-day, but NBC was anxious not to lose O’Brien. The 41-year-old “Late Night” host was considered likely to jump to another network without a promise of advancement.

Leno beat out David Letterman for the “Tonight” job, sparking a feud that lives on and was even the subject of a book and movie, “The Late Shift.”

Leno recalled the animosity on his show Monday, saying “a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged.”

“Quite frankly, I don’t want to see anybody go through that again,” he said.

On his show Monday, Letterman wished O’Brien “all the best” and repeatedly mocked the idea of a 2009 changeover.

“I think he said he couldn’t take it another minute so he’s leaving in 2009,” Letterman said.

“I wonder if I can get a tape over there,” Letterman added.

Responded his sidekick, Paul Shaffer: “It may be a little late.”

Tribute to Johnny Carson
Leno also offered a warm tribute Monday to his immediate predecessor, Johnny Carson, showing a lengthy clip package of Carson’s funniest moments. Leno was criticized when he took over for overlooking Carson’s 30-year legacy.

“Johnny set the standard for how this job should be done,” Leno said. “He was such a gentleman. He always had impeccable timing. He was the comedian’s comedian. Those of us who do this for a living, we all owe him a tremendous debt.”

Oprah Winfrey visited Leno’s Burbank set Monday to bring in a cake decorated with a Mount Rushmore picture of the four “Tonight” hosts: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Carson and Leno.

O’Brien’s show, which immediately follows Leno on NBC, was a rerun Monday.

Shortly after he signed his latest contract extension, Leno said NBC executives approached him, saying they didn’t want to lose O’Brien. He endorsed the move and set his own 2009 exit date, when he’ll be 59.

Leno’s renowned workaholism also made the announcement surprising. He never missed a show until he had to, when NBC had him trade jobs for a day with Katie Couric in a promotional gimmick, and does live stand-up comedy dates when he’s not working on TV.

“You can do these things until they carry you out on a stretcher or you can get out while you’re still doing good,” he said. “I’m not quitting show business, but I realized I’m not spending enough time with my cars.”

Leno said he called his friend, Jerry Seinfeld, for advice on life after leaving the TV gig of a lifetime.

“Seinfeld has proven how you can move beyond TV and continue to be as big and as popular and as in demand as ever without having to punch the clock every night,” said Aaron Barnhart, television columnist for the Kansas City Star who used to write a newsletter on late-night.

For his first few years at “Tonight,” Leno trailed Letterman in ratings and critical respect. But Leno eclipsed Letterman’s CBS show among viewers in the 1995-96 season and hasn’t looked back.

'Tonight' winning late-night war
In the season that concluded last week, “Tonight” averaged 5.8 million viewers, a 2 percent increase over the previous year. Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS averaged 4.2 million, up 8 percent from the year before.

O’Brien’s previous contract was expiring this year. The last time he was up for a renewal, Fox tried to lure him with an earlier show, but O’Brien turned it down at the last minute. ABC, Fox and even CBS — if Letterman has any plans to retire himself in the next few years — might have been interested if he were a free agent.

In interviews, O’Brien, has expressed a mixture of ambition and loyalty to NBC. He debuted in his current time slot in September 1993.

“There is the curiosity to take the show earlier,” O’Brien told The New York Times last spring. “But if going to another network for more money still means being seen by fewer people, what are you doing? Then it’s just an ego thing.”   O’Brien’s show reaches 2.5 million viewers a night, dominating its 12:35 a.m. ET time slot. The former “Saturday Night Live” comedy writer’s first few months on the air was a well-chronicled disaster, and he narrowly escaped firing.

But he found his stride, and his quick wit has made his show a critical and commercial success.

Now, a man who once lived on 13-week contract renewals has signed a contract with a promise that he will take over the most famous late-night show in television in five years. It’s an enormous expression of faith by NBC, betting that the fickle nature of public taste won’t change much in five years.

O’Brien was not available to speak to reporters.

No decision has been made on whether O’Brien, whose show is New York-based, will move to California for “Tonight,” but that’s considered likely because its Hollywood connections help in booking guests, particularly since competitor Letterman is in New York.