POSTED BY STUART LEVINE
As Johnny Carson was stepping down as the king of latenight in 1992, both Leno and David Letterman were in line for the job. Letterman was at the time a 12:30 a.m. cult fave and Leno was a steady stand-up comedian who would often act as a fill-in host for Carson.
After much behind-the-scenes wrangling, Leno got the job and the ratings have been steady, so NBC can feel like it made the right choice. Letterman, of course, moved on to CBS where the network was finally able to create a latenight beachfront.
But now Leno will be on the other end of a "Tonight Show" transition, though this should be much smoother. Maybe not so much for Jay, though.
A few years back NBC announced Conan O'Brien would take over "The Tonight Show" in 2009. Made sense, as he's got a big following and has for years. Leno's agreement to the transition has always been somewhat unclear, though. Did they ask him to leave in 2009? Was this some sort of compromise? Was he just ready to do something else?
So now the question is where does Leno go from here? NBC entertainment topper Ben Silverman said emphatically at TCA on Monday that he hopes he can keep Leno at the network post-2009.
"We love Jay Leno and want him to stay at NBC for life" Silverman reiterated. "We're aggressively coming up with ideas to make him stay."
Obviously, he wouldn't switch places with O'Brien and go back to 12:30 a.m., but there is talk about a primetime possibility. Co-topper Marc Graboff wouldn't elaborate, but he said, "It's something we're talking about."
And forget about a compromise, with Leno and O'Brien splitting the "Tonight Show" hosting gig. "There will be no job sharing," Graboff made clear. "When Conan takes over, it'll be the "The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien.'"
If Leno doesn't stay at NBC, Fox could certainly be interested in his services. Fox tried the latenight show thing in the 1980s with folks like Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase and Pat Sajak, but all were unmitigated disasters. Having Leno as a host would give Fox instant credibilty, and maybe an audience that would move over from NBC.
And ABC has been interested in latenight talk for years, often trying to woo David Letterman over from CBS.
It all makes for interesting possibilities. Whether it's enough to write another "Late Shift" -- the tome that New York Times writer Bill Carter wrote about the Carson-to-Leno shift -- remains to be seen.
-- Stuart Levine