Created in 1982 to follow The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, NBC's Late Night has had just three hosts in as many decades: David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Jimmy Fallon. As the story goes (and it could very well just be a myth), Letterman's writers gave O'Brien a large, plastic pickle when he took over Late Night in 1993. O'Brien, in turn, gave it to Fallon (by way of messenger) when he became the host of Late Night in 2009.
So for his January 28th show, just one week before his bow out from Late Night, Fallon passed the pickle to Seth Meyers, a Saturday Night Live alum whose own Late Night tenure is set to begin on February 24th. As for Fallon, he'll be taking over The Tonight Show on February 17th.
"[Conan O'Brien] had it, then he gave it to me. And then I've been stuck with it for five yea– I mean, I've been so blessed to have this thing for five years. So now I would like to present it to you. This is the Late Night pickle. It's a giant... this is the passing of the pickle. Hold back the emotion."
— Jimmy Fallon to Seth Meyers, January 28th, 2014
Both Fallon and current Tonight Show host Jay Leno will end their respective shows this week before NBC flips the switch on its Winter Olympics coverage. Leno's Tonight Show run is one marked by tabloid and turmoil — it's the story of a host who literally can't seem to stop working and network executives who can't make up their minds about whether to keep him around.
But this transition is markedly less contentious than before, and not just because both Leno and Fallon seem to be making a concerted effort to appear together cordially in interviews and make surprise cameos in each other's pre-taped sketches. If anything, it isn't even a story about Leno and Fallon.
Arguably, it's about Lorne Michaels, the man behind Saturday Night Live.
NBC's The Tonight Show is a late-night dynasty nearly 60 years old, dominated by the memory of Johnny Carson and his 30 years at the helm. The 11:35PM time slot is as close to sacred ground as television gets. The three hosts of Late Night have all at some point or another been considered heir apparent to The Tonight Show gig. Fallon is still weeks away from his first show, but the drama surrounding his two predecessors is well documented. In short, when Carson was set to retire in 1992, NBC's top brass picked Jay Leno over Carson's personal choice David Letterman — which ultimately led to Letterman moving to CBS and starting his own franchise.
11:35PM is as close to sacred ground as television gets
In 2010, O'Brien hosted for seven months, before (different) NBC executives got cold feet and brought Leno back for his own late-night show. O'Brien ultimately quit when NBC tried to move The Tonight Show to 12:05AM in order make way for The Jay Leno Show at the historic 11:35PM slot. "I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction," O'Brien wrote in a 2010 open letter. "Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the internet, a time slot doesn't matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more." O'Brien is now at TBS, starting 11:00PM.
This week, then, is Leno's second goodbye — after more than 4,600 shows and more than 4,600 jokes about Bill Clinton. It's still a ratings juggernaut, beaten only occasionally by Letterman. There is a slight concern that history could repeat itself — that the notoriously work-obsessed Leno will somehow wind up as The Tonight Show host for a third tenure. In a recent 60 Minutes interview about his retirement and about Fallon, Leno was even called out for having said "all of the same things, exactly, about Conan."
Leno isn't the wild card, here — if anything, he's the predictable constant. Who's to say NBC executive won't meddle again, should Fallon not come out the gate with good ratings? That's where Lorne Michaels comes in.
Michaels is the executive producer of NBC's other late-night dynasty, Saturday Night Live, which he created in 1975. To this day he maintains a very hands-on role in every aspect of the show, from sketch selection to casting. The show is well-known as a launching pad for comedians and writers that later move on to TV and film, and Michaels gets a lot of credit for his involvement.
For two decades, Michaels has been slowly extending his empire into the rest of the week. In 1993, after Letterman left Late Night for CBS, Michaels took on the 12:35AM slot and hand-picked Conan O'Brien — a former SNL scribe who was at the time writing for The Simpsons. It was an odd choice — O'Brien was a writer first and foremost, virtually unknown for being on camera — and it took three years before he became a critical and commercial success (Late Night would go on to be nominated for an Emmy every year from 1996 until its final year in 2009).
Michaels has been slowly extending his late night empire
When O'Brien left New York for his ill-fated stint at the helm of The Tonight Show in Los Angeles, Michaels urged NBC executives to pick Jimmy Fallon, another SNL alum — he'd anchored the show's "Weekend Update" for four years before pursuing a movie career that went nowhere. Again, the choice was met with confusion. Producer and Late Night announcer Steve Higgins is noted for joking, "You loved him on SNL. You hated him in the movies. Now, you're ambivalent." Like O'Brien, Fallon's Late Night launched with mixed reviews before finding its voice.
For the first time, Lorne Michaels will now take over as executive producer for the 11:35PM time slot, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The show is also moving back to Studio 6B in NBC's 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City — the exact same studio where Carson hosted until he moved the show to California in 1972. Two floors above, Meyers will host the new Late Night. Just down the hall from that is SNL and the "Weekend Update" desk that both he and Fallon spent years behind, honing their craft and preparing for this moment.
With SNL, Lorne Michaels has already built an institution on Saturday nights. As the executive producer of Late Night and now The Tonight Show, he wields influence over the rest of the week. Michaels won't be nearly as hands-on as he is with his first love, SNL. But for as much of The Tonight Show's drama can be traced to executive meddling, Michaels is a buffer between the creatives and the network — one with a proven track record that both sides respect.
Each new show has its unique challenges. Fallon, a known quantity at 12:35AM, must now take his iconic friendly demeanor to a broader audience — something Leno was particularly good at. For Meyers, it's all but sure to be a rough few months as he finds his voice and learns an entirely new skill set.
With Fallon, Lorne Michaels has now shepherded a comedic talent from his SNL audition to his seat at "Weekend Update" to Late Night and finally The Tonight Show. It's very likely the last gig Fallon will ever have. "There is no job after this," Michaels said in a recent interview with Vulture. "You stay on as long as you can and you hope, like Carson, that it's your choice when you go. Which I think Letterman will have as well."
That should give Fallon plenty of time to find something better to pass on than a large plastic pickle.