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A Brief History of the Battles for Late-Night TV Supremacy

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If you’ve felt a sense of déjà vu in TV news lately, you’re not alone. The television blogs and trades are once again dominated by rumors, gossip, and inside information on NBC’s attempts to oust Tonight Show host Jay Leno for the younger, funnier, and more youth-friendly host of Late Night. The names are different, but the story’s the same — the only suspense is whether it’ll play out differently this time around. Then again, the post-local news slot on the Peacock Network has always been a contentious place; even a quick glance at the history of The Tonight Show reveals decades of battles, back-stabbings, and would-be usurpers. Join us after the jump for a brief rundown of the show’s many heavyweight bouts.

Jack Paar vs. NBC

The fight: The first host of Tonight, Steve Allen, had the job for three relatively drama-free years, during which he set the template for what the show would become: a comedy/talk program, albeit more of a variety show than its later iterations. Allen went part-time in 1956 (sharing duties with Ernie Kovacs) due to his prime-time show, which he went to full-time in 1957. The network tried to switch to a news program (Tonight! America After Dark); when that tanked, they brought in Paar, an erudite conversationalist who transformed Tonight into more of a traditional “talk show.” Paar held the job for five years, but midway through his run, he locked into a censorship battle with the network. In February of 1960, the network cut out a joke about a “water closet” from Paar’s opening monologue; the following evening, he talked about the incident in his monologue, fumed “there must be a better way of making a living,” and walked off the stage, 18 minutes into the 105-minute program. Paar’s announcer (and future Today host) Hugh Downs took over for the rest of the broadcast. Paar spent a month away from the show.

The victor: Paar, whose return was greeted with cheers from viewers both in the New York studio and in homes.

Johnny Carson vs. Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Joey Bishop, Alan Thicke, Pat Sajak, etc.

The fight: After Paar’s exit in 1962, NBC wooed the young, handsome host of ABC’s comedy game show Who Do You Trust? to take over the slot. From his first broadcast on October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson made the show his own, and in the 30 years that followed, he was the undisputed king of late night. But that didn’t stop plenty of other hosts from trying to unseat him; rival programs were launched on ABC (Cavett, Bishop), CBS (Griffin, Sajak), and in syndication (Thicke), but nobody could touch Johnny, either in ratings or in cultural ubiquity.

The victor: Carson, obviously.

The runner-up: Time has been kind to Cavett, who never really gave Carson a run for his money commercially, but who is remembered these days as an eloquent and intelligent alternative (thanks to his well curated “greatest hits” DVDs).

Johnny Carson vs. Joan Rivers

The fight: Carson’s 1980 contract renegotiation yielded big wins for the host, who was well aware of his value to the network. He managed to not only nab a giant salary (and ownership of the show), but to get the show cut down from 90 minutes to an hour, and to reduce his shows-per-week from five to four. As the decade continued, he got that down to three, with reruns airing Fridays and guest hosts taking over on Mondays. In 1983, Joan Rivers, who had hosted 93 times during the 1970s and 1980s, took over as the show’s “permanent guest host,” a position she filled for three years. But in 1986, the nascent Fox network offered Rivers a $15 million deal to host her own show, competing against her former employer. This had happened before (Joey Bishop had been a frequent Tonight guest host before his own show launched in 1967), but Carson was steamed that Rivers took the deal before talking to him about it. He cut her off cold and never spoke to her again.

The victor: Carson. The Tonight Show bookers made it clear to agents and publicists that Joan’s guests weren’t welcome on Johnny’s show, and The Late Show with Joan Rivers struggled to find an audience without A-list guests or a voice of its own. Rivers was gone in six months…

Johnny Carson vs. Arsenio Hall

The fight: …but one of the guest hosts that took over in The Late Show’s waning days was a hot young stand-up comic named Arsenio Hall, who’d begun to build an audience and show of his own before The Late Show was yanked for Fox’s ill-fated faux-news program, The Wilton-North Report. But wise eyes at Paramount (also the distributor of Coming to America, in which Hall co-starred with his buddy Eddie Murphy) saw an opportunity to engage a young demographic that wasn’t watching the aging Carson anyway, and developed the syndicated Arsenio Hall Show, which presented the first serious competition to Johnny in years.

The victor: A draw. Hall’s ratings never eclipsed Carson’s overall (the placement, geographically and on the schedule, of syndicated shows is too spotty), but The Arsenio Hall Show did outlast The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. More importantly, his engagement of the hip, young demo spotlighted Carson’s weakness with those viewers, and got NBC worrying about what would happen to their cash cow when its audience started dying out.

Jay Leno vs. David Letterman (Round One)

The fight: When Carson made a surprise appearance at NBC’s May 1991 “upfronts” presentation and told the network’s executives, advertisers, and station managers that he was beginning his final year as host of Tonight, the industry was stunned. Talk immediately turned to who would take over. Jay Leno had become the show’s permanent guest host in 1987, but David Letterman had taken the post-Johnny slot on Late Night in 1982, shaking up the format and delighting critics and audiences. Unfortunately, Leno’s notorious manager Helen Kushnick had managed to get the network to contractually promise Tonight to her client just a week before Carson’s surprise announcement, leaving Letterman out in the cold. The ugly battle for Johnny’s throne was detailed in Bill Carter’s terrific book The Late Shift (and its HBO movie adaptation).

The victor: Leno, who landed the Tonight Show gig, the only thing that Letterman ever really wanted.

The runner-up: Letterman’s big-money deal to mount The Late Show at CBS makes it hard to classify him as a “loser.”

Jay Leno vs. David Letterman (Round Two)

The fight: Due to the overlapping of their contracts, there was nearly a full year during which Leno hosted Tonight and Letterman hosted Late Night (while he prepared for the big move to CBS). But as Carter’s book revealed, NBC executives were unhappy enough with Leno’s initial Tonight shows, and worried enough about Letterman’s ability to capsize the show he’d been denied, that they made Letterman an offer in January of 1993 to stay at Late Night and take over Tonight when Leno’s contract ended the following year.

The victor: A draw. Letterman ultimately chose to turn down NBC and go to CBS, primarily because of the uncertainty in the 17-month window during which he’d have to wait out the Leno contract. Once he arrived there, he easily beat Leno during The Late Show’s first two years, and when Carter’s book was published, one of its most indelible images was that of Leno hiding in a closet, eavesdropping on the conference call in which execs decided to make Letterman the offer. On the other hand, Leno’s dead-lucky booking of Hugh Grant in 1995 (mere days after his bust for soliciting a prostitute) gave him his first big win over Letterman’s Late Show, and viewers stuck around, leading Leno to beat Letterman steadily for years thereafter.

Johnny Carson vs. Jay Leno

The fight: Carson liked Leno well enough, but was no fan of Leno’s manager Helen Kushnick, especially after she planted a story in the New York Post in 1990 that NBC execs were looking to get Johnny out and her client in. The network never asked Carson who he wanted to take over Tonight, but he confided to several people that his clear choice was Letterman, whom he’d always preferred, and whose program he had appeared on more than once. Tellingly, during the high-profile, high-rated farewell shows of Carson’s final weeks on Tonight, Letterman appeared as a guest to pay tribute to Johnny — but Leno was never invited.

The victor: Carson, who managed to make Leno look like a second choice even after his death: while Leno’s Tonight mounted an earnest but empty tribute, Letterman’s Late Show appreciation not only included lengthy interviews with Carson’s producer Peter Lassally and bandleader Doc Severinson, but an opening comprised entirely of jokes Carson had quietly sent Letterman over the years, which Dave had slipped into his monologues without attribution (but with a sly acknowledgment in the form of Carson’s trademark golf swing).

Jay Leno vs. Conan O’Brien (and Jimmy Kimmell, and David Letterman)

The fight: As detailed in Bill Carter’s second book about Tonight, The War for Late Night, Letterman’s Late Night replacement Conan O’Brien had, after a rather rocky start, become a popular and in-demand host, so when other networks came a-calling in 2004, the network had to figure out how to keep him on board. Their solution was to offer Conan Tonight — in five years, setting a 2009 exit date for Leno. Publicly, Leno acted fine with the deal, but in private, he didn’t understand why he was being ousted when he was still #1 in the ratings. Those ratings only grew stronger as the five years passed, so when Leno made it clear he had no problem shopping his services to the Peacock’s competitors, the panicked network came up with a solution: moving Leno to prime-time. The Jay Leno Show was a cheap way for the network to fill an hour every night, and to keep Leno in house; the problem was, his Tonight Lite was a critical and ratings disaster. Those ratings were hurting local affiliates, who saw viewership for their newscasts drop. They also were doing no favors to the O’Brien-hosted Tonight, which was posting significantly lower numbers than Leno’s version. Around this time, Leno also started mumbling that gee, if they wanted him to go back to 11:30, well, that’d be okay. The network tried to broker a deal to make everyone happy: a shortened version of The Jay Leno Show at 11:35, and O’Brien’s Tonight at 12:05. Conan thought it over, and turned the offer down — basically handing The Tonight Show back to Leno. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s competitors Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman started taking swipes at Leno on their shows; Kimmel even went so far as to do an entire show in character as Leno, followed by an awkward segment on The Jay Leno Show in which he begged the host, “Conan and I have children, all you have is cars… for God’s sake, leave our shows alone!”

The victor: Leno — but it was a Pyrrhic victory. He got Tonight back, but Conan became a folk hero, gaining public support as the guy who Leno wronged, embarking on a successful concert tour (due to his exit deal with NBC, which prohibited him from being on television for a nine-month period), and landing a lucrative deal at TBS.

Jay Leno vs. NBC

The fight: NBC, if you haven’t heard, hasn’t been doing so hot in the ratings lately, so Mr. Leno brought his rapier wit to the story, joking during his monologue that the network’s recent fifth-place finish put them “behind the Spanish-language network Univision — or as we call it here in Los Angeles: Cinco de Ratings.” GET IT? Because of Cinco de Mayo, and it’s a Spanish… well, anyway, the network’s top entertainment executive, Robert Greenblatt, reportedly did not care for those and other jokes (we use the word “jokes” loosely), and sent Leno a sternly worded email telling him so. Leno made it clear he would not be pushed around by the network, making NBC the target of more lame jokes over the past few nights.

The victor: Normally, we’d want to line up with the artist standing tall in the face of corporate censorship — but this is Jay Leno we’re talking about, and “artist” hasn’t been part of the conversation for decades. Besides, it’s starting to smell like this little controversy is one the network is cooking up in order to justify their latest attempt to change their line-up…

Jay Leno vs. Jimmy Fallon

The fight: Earlier this month, we started hearing rumbles that NBC is ready to finally put Leno out to pasture, bringing in Conan O’Brien’s Late Night replacement, Jimmy Fallon, as the new host of the Tonight Show. Over the past couple of days, the whispers have gotten louder, indicating that the network is not only eyeing a February 2014 transition (which would keep Leno in a holding pattern until his contract expires that September), but is considering moving the show back to its original New York City home. Fallon, who clearly knows exactly who he’s dealing with, has reportedly reached out to Leno in an attempt to create a smooth transition, ha ha ha.

The victor: It sure looks like Fallon — but boy does this whole thing look like a replay of 2010, particularly since (as before) Leno is still ahead in the ratings. He’s got to know what a spoilsport he’ll look like if he tries the same thing twice. The question is, will that matter? As far as Fallon taking over Tonight, and (here’s the key) keeping it: well, we’ll believe it when we see it.