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Conan Lands Leno’s 'Tonight'

By Annie M. Lowrey, Crimson Staff Writer

During his famous Class Day speech in 2000, Conan O’Brien ’85 sarcastically described himself as “the brightest star in the Late Night firmament.” This past week, NBC spun sarcastic flax into gold.

O’Brien has won the most prominent position in late-night television, as the anchor of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” During the fiftieth anniversary broadcast of “The Tonight Show” on Monday, host Jay Leno announced that O’Brien would succeed him in 2009.

NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” which airs directly after “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” every weeknight, has consistently dominated its 12:35 a.m. time slot, coming in first place every quarter in its eleven-year history. Under his new contract, O’Brien will continue to host “Late Night” until 2009 and will takeover “The Tonight Show” until at least 2011. In the event that NBC chooses another host to replace Leno, a clause in the contract would guarantee Conan a multi-million dollar buyout.

Though NBC would not disclose the exact terms of the deal, all signs suggest Conan is in for a raise. In 2002, O’Brien signed a contract extension to continue in the Late Night spot for four years for a reported $32 million. And this past March Leno signed a five-year extension reportedly worth $100 million.

The announcement ends months of speculation over the futures of “The Tonight Show” and of O’Brien. O’Brien had publicly made clear that he wished to move to an earlier show and this past spring was linked to a move to rival network FOX. Rumors also circulated that Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” was being courted to inherit Leno’s desk.

But Leno and president of NBC Universal Television Group Jeffrey Zucker ’86, who controls NBC’s television programming, personally helped broker O’Brien’s deal. During his show, Leno lauded O’Brien as “the hottest late guy out there.”

“It is a great accomplishment and testament to both Jay and Conan that we were able to all work together on a long-term plan for this important institution,” said Zucker. “We look forward to more years of laughs from Jay and are thrilled to have Conan’s future be as part of the NBC family.”

O’Brien, in a press statement, said: “I am thrilled to get this opportunity…and I am particularly grateful to Jay for all the generous support and kindness he has always shown me.”

O’Brien cut his teeth in comedy as president of The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. In fact, O’Brien first met Zucker, his current boss, one day when O’Brien and the Lampoon editors stole all the copies of that morning’s Crimson. Zucker, then Crimson President, called the police and met O’Brien face to face while he was being arrested.

After graduation, O’Brien wrote for television programs such as “The Simpsons.” He joined the writing team of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in 1988 and five years later became anchor of “The Late Show.” Since then, the show has earned top Nielsen ratings in its time slot, garnering 2.5 million viewers this past year.

O’Brien’s off-beat humor—including segments with a sexually-frustrated Rottweiler puppet, Triumph—has earned him a strong following among young viewers. Late Night this year beat its competitors in the coveted 18-49 age bracket by a margin of 71 percent.

—Staff writer Annie M. Lowrey can be reached at lowrey@fas.harvard.edu.

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