How Jay Leno Got “The Tonight Show”

Now that Conan is gone from The Tonight Show and Jay Leno is preparing to take it over, again, we should take a little trip down history lane, courtesy of this 1994 New York Times article from Late Shift writer Bill Carter:

“Late Night” immediately had a signature guest to pair with Dave; future Leno appearances would consistently boost the show’s ratings. As good as that was for the show, it was far more important to Jay Leno; he had been on “The Tonight Show” four times and ultimately bombed. In the chemistry between Dave and Jay, Leno finally found his television voice. It was the completion of a circle. David Letterman had helped launch his own career by watching Jay Leno work in the clubs. Now Jay Leno was using his guest shots with Letterman to jump-start his career.

The Letterman-Leno act began to generate a lot of good press. Nobody paid closer attention to buzz in the media than Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment. Tartikoff never stopped scouting new late-night talent. Leno returned to “The Tonight Show,” then made several popular guest host appearances. In 1986 Tartikoff made a deal that would set up Jay Leno as the permanent guest host of “The Tonight Show.”

Throughout the late 1980’s the arrangement worked out perfectly — for NBC. Letterman remained the master of the late late-night show while Leno drew strong ratings on Carson, especially with younger viewers. Leno was always cooperative with the “Tonight” staff — a “pussycat,” they called him. He was respectful of Carson and never openly coveted his job.

Letterman sensed the threat to his dream of succeeding Carson, but he had no easy way to act on it. He had grown deeply estranged from the NBC management installed by the General Electric Company after it bought the network in 1986.

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