Just days after the two late night hosts performed a touching duet together, NBC confirmed that, as has been rumored for a few weeks now, Jimmy Fallon will replace Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show in February 2014. Bill Carter, a reporter for the New York Times and the author of two books about Leno and late night TV, broke the story, getting quotes from Leno, Fallon, Lorne Michaels (who produces Fallon’s show as well as Saturday Night Live), and Steve Burke, the chief executive of NBCUniversal.
Leno, of course, has been blamed by many people for sabotaging a previously attempted transition, from him to Conan O’Brien, now on TBS. “The main difference between this and the other time,” he told Carter, “is I’m part of the process. The last time the decision was made without me. I came into work one day and—you’re out.” In contrast, he said, “This time it feels right.”
Leno’s contract runs until September 2014, and according to the piece, Burke told Leno he was welcome to keep his job until then. Leno reportedly said that was “not really necessary,” and that he didn’t “want to make it harder for Jimmy.” “The Tonight Show was no. 1 when I got it,” he added. “I’ve kept it No. 1 one for about 90 percent of my term here, and I would like to see Jimmy keep it at No. 1, which I’m sure he will.”
A concern about ratings also explains the timing: NBC has the Winter Olympics, and wants to promote Fallon as the new Tonight Show host during those games. According to Leno, the timing was his idea. “If we really want to give him a good send-off, how about after the Olympics?” he says he told Burke.
Leno went on to express pride in his long lasting ratings success:
When I started people said, “Oh the only reason you’re winning is because of ER,” or “The only reason you’re winning is because Hugh Grant came on and said that one thing.” Well, at least now I can say the only reason we’re winning is ’cause we’re winning.
Leno told Carter that after he leaves the show, he plans to go “back on the road, being a comedian again.” Leno’s comic stylings as Tonight Show host have never gotten much love from critics—just this week he’s been criticized for (unconsciously, I suspect) cribbing punchlines from the conservative conference CPAC—but he was once a well-regarded stand-up.