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Conan O'Brien Walked Away from The Tonight Show 11 Years Ago Today

  • On January 22nd, 2010, NBC broadcast the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, ending a tumultuous, highly-public scheduling debacle for the network, as well as the lifelong dream of the host. 

    Conan O'Brien had wanted to host The Tonight Show ever since he was a kid watching Johnny Carson. After writing for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, he got the unlikely chance to follow that dream when he was plucked from obscurity and chosen to replace David Letterman as host of NBC's Late Night in 1993Letterman famously left the network after he was passed over for the job as Carson's successor in favor of Jay Leno and went to CBS to start The Late Show in the same time slot.

    O'Brien made himself the leading name in goofball nerd comedy over 16 years as host of Late Night, making no secret of the fact that he was gunning for The Tonight Show. NBC, not wanting to lose O'Brien the same embarrassingly public way they lost Letterman, eventually got Leno to agree to step down from The Tonight Show in 2009, even though he'd topped the ratings in the timeslot for over a decade. 

    As the transition date neared and Leno began making noises about jumping to another network, NBC came up with the disastrous plan to replace their 10:00 PM prime time programming with The Jay Leno Show, which was basically the same show he'd been doing for years at an earlier hour. When that plan bombed, NBC attempted to try to shoehorn a half hour of Leno in before O'Brien, proposing to bump his start time to 12:05 AM ET. essentially making it The Tomorrow Show in the process.

    O'Brien, in the end, was more protective of The Tonight Show brand and legacy than NBC was, and decided to walk away from his dream job after only 7 months. He gave this remarkably classy and emotional good-bye speech to close out his final show, calling it "the hardest decision I've ever had to make." He also spoke out against cynicism. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen." 

    O'Brien garnered a massive outpouring of popular support throughout the ordeal, and he eventually went to TBS to host Conan, which will be ending later this year as he moves to a weekly HBO Max program. Leno resumed hosting The Tonight Show, but only for another four years before he was nudged out once again, this time by Jimmy Fallon. 

    For his part, David Letterman absolutely delighted in watching another humiliating NBC clusterfudge unfold from a distance over at CBS, making fun of it every night. Eventually O'Brien visited The Late Show and the two Late Night veterans did a post-mortem of the whole ridiculous mess, complete with dueling Leno impressions.

    Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.

    TOPICS: The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, NBC, Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, Jay Leno