The Late Night Wars kicked off in 1991 when Johnny Carson, announced his retirement from The Tonight Show on NBC.
There was wide speculation that David Letterman, the host of his own highly successful show on NBC would step into Carson’s shoes. But Jay Leno got the job instead.
The decision by NBC surprised everyone including Johnny Carson who invited Letterman onto The Tonight Show one more time before he retired.
Carson asked Letterman, “How pissed are you?” Letterman claimed he wasn’t mad at anyone but the next year he bolted from NBC to launch the Late Show on CBS which put him in direct competition with Leno.
Leno routinely beat Letterman in the ratings for the vast majority of the time they went head-to-head. But Letterman was always considered a critical darling and an innovator.
According to a Letterman biography one of the most meaningful signs of success was Carson’s cameo appearance on the Late Show nearly two years to the day after his farewell. Carson, who died in January 2005, never appeared on Leno’s show.
While others certainly entered the network late night fray during the 90s including Arsenio Hall, no one could really compete with Letterman and Leno, and the main conversation was always about which of the two were on top.
David Letterman and Jay Leno came up together in the L.A. comedy scene of the 1970s, and when Letterman made his way to television, Leno was a frequent guest on his groundbreaking Late Night show.
After Leno took over as host of The Tonight Show their friendship never recovered but it did appear to thaw when they appeared in a Super Bowl commercial with Oprah.
In a recent appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast Letterman insisted Leno was the funniest person he knew but their problems were the result of Leno’s deep insecurity.
Leno came back for another four years and then permanently retired in 2014. Letterman retired the next year after a 33 year career, making him the longest running host in late night talk show history and the ultimate winner of the late night wars.