The handover of a storied comedy empire to the next generation turned into a clash of the late-night titans. Back in 2004, NBC had promised that Conan O’Brien, then host of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” would take over “The Tonight Show” from Jay Leno in 2009. When the time came, Leno had said affably, “Conan, it’s yours!”
But the low ratings for Leno’s new show, which aired in an earlier time slot, had NBC affiliates in revolt. A poor lead-in meant smaller audiences for local news broadcasts, which bring in a third of station revenues. Meanwhile, Conan’s “Tonight Show” wasn’t doing so hot, either. The old lineup was looking better and better to NBC. It couldn’t fire O’Brien outright without forfeiting $45 million, so the network gave Leno the old “Tonight Show” time slot and shoved O’Brien to a later time. An aggrieved O’Brien quit on January 29, and the “I’m With Coco” movement was born.
Soon everyone was taking sides but mostly backing O’Brien. The week before he left, he definitely led the will (or at least the online attention) of the people, with a peak 297% more Yahoo! searches than Leno. David Letterman, who’d lost the scramble to succeed Johnny Carson back in 1992, gleefully parodied his old rival’s high voice on his CBS show, “Late Show With David Letterman,” and showed a fake promo for a new series, “Law & Order: Leno Victims Unit.” Jimmy Kimmel piled on too, putting on a gray wig, a jutting false chin, and a lisp to play a jovial Leno. Even President Obama, who knows the pain of approval ratings, got in a dig or two at the big-chinned guy at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “I’m also glad that I’m speaking first, because we’ve all seen what happens when somebody takes the time slot after Leno’s.”
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was one of the few to speak up for Leno. Then again, the defense came at the same time as a plug for his new show, “The Marriage Ref,” which happened to be premiering that fall on NBC.
Leno may have won back “The Tonight Show,” but he certainly lost the battle for hearts and minds: O’Brien’s last episode of “The Tonight Show” trounced the competition. Highlights included performances by Neil Young, a celebrity band featuring Will Ferrell, and O’Brien on guitar playing “Free Bird.” And then it was time to say goodbye.
Days after the curtain fell, a newly bearded O’Brien took off on his sold-out “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour,” took to Twitter, landed a new late-night show on TBS (motto: “Very funny”), and promoted it by blowing up a car and flying a big orange blimp up and down the East Coast. That helped juice premiere ratings, which then slid after losing that fall-guy status.
Leno is still tops in the ratings, for the most part, but his total audience is down 21% from what it was two years ago, and down 25% among the younger viewers whom advertisers love. But, O’Brien does get the last laugh: The “Tonight Show” received Emmy nominations for four episodes — all of them his.