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'Tonight Show' Host Controversies

All the turmoil from every Tonight Show host transition


It seems like the moment Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show, the iconic late night program was plagued with controversy over the transition from host to host.

But the Letterman-Leno shift was hardly the first time the program had to deal with big personalities from its larger-than-life hosts. Here's a quick rundown of some of the show's stranger moments.

1. Jack Paar walks out during a live show

Former Tonight Show host Jack Paar
Camrique/Getty Images
Jack Paar, who followed original host Steve Allen, famously quit The Tonight Show during a live program. After growing increasingly upset after discovering that NBC censored one of his monologue jokes, Paar expressed his displeasure the very next night. After he began his monologue, Paar abruptly walked out, leaving his announcer, Hugh Downs, to fill in for the remainder of the program. Paar wasn't gone long. He returned a few weeks later. To address the elephant in the room, Paar opend the show by famously saying, "As I was saying before I was interrupted … I believe the last thing I said was 'There must be a better way to make a living than this.' Well, I've looked - and there isn't."

2. Letterman leaves NBC after Leno named new host

David Letterman
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous controversial Tonight Show transition came when Johnny Carson retired after 30 years and Jay Leno was named the show's new host. Most people believed David Letterman, then host of Late Night would take Carson's place.

But Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick, reportedly a tough cookie who never stopped lobbying for Leno, had a different idea. She reportedly uses a connection in New York to convince the New York Post to run a front-page story saying that NBC was pressuring Carson to leave, loved Leno and preferred him to Carson. The headline read: "There Goes Johnny; NBC Looking to Dump Carson for Jay Leno." Then, after CBC made an offer to Leno, NBC was forced to take action. hey sign a deal guaranteeing Leno's NBC's spot when Carson retires.

Letterman learns of this after the fact and is shocked. He gathers forces to figure out his options. And, believe it or not, NBC actually offers Letterman hosting duties on Tonight. But with a multitude of catches. Especially considering Leno already has the hosting duties and is on the air.

Letterman eventually turns to Johnny Carson, who tells Letterman to follow his heart. Soon afterward, Leno announces he will leave NBC for CBS.

3. Leno returns to ‘Tonight’ and Conan bolts for TBS

Conan O'Brien
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Most people were shocked when yet another late night controversy kicked up soon after Conan O'Brien took over as host of Tonight. After all, this time around, Leno announced his retirement from Tonight five years before he was set to depart and Late Night host O'Brien was quickly named his successor. No controversies, please.

But then, three years later, Leno turns the tables on NBC and says he thinks he'll stick around past his original retirement date. And when NBC announces Leno's departure from and Conan's start on the Tonight Show, Leno's desire to stay put is clearly aired when Leno dresses as a reporter and attends an NBC press conference to ask the question: "What will happen to Jay?" Uh-oh.

The answer seems to be a primetime talk show, The Jay Leno Show. And with that, all seems good with the world. For a few months anyway.

In early January 2010, just four months of Leno's premiere, the show is cancelled. NBC says it will most likely move Leno back to 11:35 p.m. and bump Tonight to 12:05 a.m. and Late Night to 1:05 a.m.

But Conan isn't happy about this. He even says he'd rather quit Tonight, then move to midnight. And on Jan. 21, 2010, no more than three weeks after Leno's cancellation, O'Brien leaves his hosting duties on Tonight. Two months later, Leno is back behind the desk.

4. Leno’s Second Retirement

Jimmy Fallon
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
In March 2013, rumors begin to spread that NBC will not renew Leno's contract when it is up in 2014, effectively booting Leno from The Tonight Show. Speculation is that Late Night host Jimmy Fallon will replace Leno. And that Leno will move on to another network, likely Fox, to compete with everyone else at 11:30 a.m.

But as we can see, Leno will likely have more to say about that before it is done.

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