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Jay Leno Made His First Tonight Show Appearance 44 Years Ago Today

  • On March 2nd, 1977, Jay Leno made his first-ever appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Judging from the relatively tepid audience response in this clip, few  would have predicted that he'd eventually take over the beloved late-night institution.

    Leno eventually succeeded Joan Rivers as the "permanent guest host" of The Tonight Show in 1986, and then succeeded Carson himself as the regular host in 1992. Leno's hiring by NBC led Carson's preferred choice, Late Night host David Letterman, to jump to CBS to start The Late Show as Leno's direct competition. Leno would win that ratings fight for most of his tenure.

    Leno hosted the show until 2009, ostensibly stepping aside to allow Conan O'Brien to succeed him on The Tonight Show — a change that lasted only seven months before Leno returned to the chair in 2010, following a big public debacle that included a prime-time misfire called The Jay Leno Show. This time he stuck around until 2014 before handing The Tonight Show off to its current host, Jimmy Fallon.

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    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: Jay Leno, NBC, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson