Jack Paar, host of NBC's The Tonight Show, walked off the program to protest censorship on February 11, 1960. NBC had recently started taping the show, rather than airing it live, and censors now had the power to edit segments. Infuriated when censors cut a joke about a "water closet," claiming it was in poor taste, Paar stormed off the set in tears and did not return to the show for a month.
Paar, a young game show and talk show host and comedian, had joined The Tonight Show as host in 1957 after Steve Allen retired as host for life. The witty [but often emotional] Paar was a master of the interview, as well as comic sketches. Paar was controversial too. He railed against the Cuban dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista and praised Fidel Castro's revolution, trying to arrange a trade of tractors for prisoners from the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Paar left The Tonight Show for good in 1962, and the show was hosted by a series of substitutes until Johnny Carson took over later that year. Carson's 30-year reign became the longest in The Tonight Show's history. Although, Carson threatened to walk, quite often, and quite publicly almost every other year. Carson also had so many guest hosts, one would be surprised when Carson actually showed up to work. Carson's "permanent guest hosts" included Joan Rivers (1983-1986), Garry Shandling (1986-1987), and Jay Leno (1987-1992). Rivers split to do her own show. It tanked. And Carson never spoke to her again - and Leno never let her on the show while he hosted it.
Carson finally decided to advocate the throne in 1992, which created a spontaneous Late-Night King Lear. Jay Leno and David Letterman vied to take Carson's seat. Leno ended up behind the desk, and Letterman launched, out of spite, The Late Show with David Letterman opposite The Tonight Show the following year. Letterman had been kicking Leno's ass up until an Englishman got a BJ from a Hollywood hooker. Hugh Grant's interview on the Tonight Show put Leno over the top of Letterman, where Jay continued to beat Dave in the ratings - even during the WGA strike.
Also, in the early days of the Leno reign, Leno's producer, Helen Kushnick, played hardball better than Karl Rove. But eventually her behind the curtain backstabbing and her unethical booking practices eventually caused her demise. Jay either knew and pretended not to acknowledge her practices, or was clueless.
The current situation with Leno and O'Brien is just typical of the behind the scenes at the show.
I don't think this is Jay's doing. I think it's shortsighted executives "running" NBC messing around with gambles and long-shots. Their plan didn't work out even close to what they assumed would be acceptable losses.
Why is this important? The Tonight Show is an institution. This talk show has aired on NBC since 1954. Tonight is the third longest-running entertainment program in U.S. television history, after Guiding Light and Hallmark Hall of Fame.
The real reason it's so important is that in the Network scheme playbook, the late-show programming is critical to retaining and creating viewership. Even though it is based upon outdated television technology, the logic remains. It's simple: If you fall asleep watching NBC, when you turn the television back on, it will be on NBC. So - by that logic - NBC spends all the dollars it can to ensure that the viewing public will fall asleep on your channel, and when you turn on the TV again, you are tuned into NBC's Today Show. The assumption is that you're too lazy to change the channel.
The other, secondary strategy, is that if the comedian after the local news is better than the other offerings, then folks will tune in watch the NBC local news... and then watch NBC's late-night show... which will in turn have them watching the Today Show the next morning. However, in practice this isn't true, because it's really the lead in at 10/9C that counts. It's the lead in that is important. A lead in is that show before the news that feed into the local news. It's the "You're to lazy to change the channel" strategy again. This is why the Jay Leno show five nights a week has been declared a dismal failure. No one is watching Leno's 10/9C show - so no one 'leads in' to watch the 11/10C NBC Local news. And the local channels make all their money from advertising during the local newscasts. No eye balls, they can't sell advertising, local NBC affiliates get their pitchforks and torches out.
The correct solution would be to fire Leno for being sh*tty, and keep Conan happy. The boat was rocked. No point in sinking the boat, right? Too late, NBC has sunk the boat.