A rosy future for Conan O'Brien

Late-night comic to replace Jay Leno in 2009 on NBC

September 28, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Jay Leno will step down as host of The Tonight Show in 2009, NBC announced yesterday, and turn over the most prestigious job in late-night television to Conan O'Brien, the goofy host of Late Night who has brought insult-spewing puppet dogs, among other innovations, to the small screen.

O'Brien, who has been the host of the 12:35 a.m. Late Night show for 11 years, has been itching for an earlier time slot, and another network was likely to give it to him. NBC realized the only way to keep O'Brien, one of late night's most original talents, was to guarantee him the Tonight Show job.

In April, Leno signed a five-year contract extension that will pay him more than $16 million a year and extend his run as host to 17 years. This makes his Tonight Show tenure second only to Johnny Carson's, its host for 30 years when he stepped down in 1992.

"When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor and there is no one more qualified than Conan," Leno, 54, said in a statement yesterday. "Plus, I promised [my wife] Mavis I would take her out to dinner before I turned 60."

Leno was to announce the news on The Tonight Show's 50th anniversary special last night. The show premiered on Sept. 27, 1954, with Steve Allen as host, and it is the longest-running entertainment show on television.

"The Tonight Show is one of the great franchises in television and I am thrilled to get this opportunity," O'Brien, 41, said in a statement. Terms of his contract were not released. His current deal, which expires in December 2005, reportedly pays him about $8 million a year.

O'Brien, plucked from the ranks of Saturday Night Live writers in 1993 for the Late Night stint, has slowly earned the respect of his NBC bosses. After his first year at NBC, his show's future was so precarious that he worked on 13-week contracts. At one point, NBC executives reportedly decided to cancel his show but changed their mind the next morning. O'Brien didn't find out until years later.

Now O'Brien is widely acclaimed for his intelligence, ridiculous humor and creativity. He was praised for his performance as host of the Emmys two years ago, and his puppet creation, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, has even appeared on The Tonight Show. And O'Brien's show is a ratings winner, with 2.5 million viewers every night.

Still, his brand of ironic humor is more akin to David Letterman, host of Late Night before he moved to CBS and the Late Show, than to Leno's mainstream jokes and bits. Some wonder if Leno's older, more conservative audience will take to O'Brien.

"Right now, on the spectrum of late-night comedians, Conan and Leno inhabit some very different spaces," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "What Conan's doing now with the self-pleasuring bear still seems really out there, but it will be a lot less out there in five years."

Thompson says NBC is betting that O'Brien will be a bit tamer in five years than he is now, and that the late-night audience by then will be ready for his stranger, more adventurous humor. It also seems to be the direction comedy is heading. Thompson said Leno is the only late night host who is in Carson's mold of telling straight jokes with punch lines.

"Within five years, there will be few people staying up past 11:30 who will even remember who Carson is," Thompson said.

It is rare, and perhaps unprecedented, for networks to announce personnel changes five years out. NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw announced in May 2002 that he would retire after the presidential election this year, and Oprah Winfrey is continually announcing - and then postponing - retirement from her show.

Leno will be 59 in 2009 and he likely could have stayed on at The Tonight Show, where he has been beating Letterman for nine years. Last season, Leno averaged 5.8 million viewers per night to Letterman's 4.2 million. But yesterday's announcement appeared to be as sincere as they get in show business.

Both Leno and O'Brien spoke warmly of each other in statements yesterday, as they have in the past.

It had been expected that Fox and ABC would make runs at O'Brien, and perhaps even CBS if Letterman decided to step down when his contract expires in 2006. But in staying with NBC, O'Brien is betting that even in five years, The Tonight Show will be the Holy Grail of late-night television, as it has been for 50 years.

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