From Leno to Fallon: Thank Scott Sassa

Comedians Jimmy Fallon (R) and Jay Leno pose in the press room at the Golden Globes awards ceremony in Beverly Hills on Janua
Comedians Jimmy Fallon (R) and Jay Leno pose in the press room at the Golden Globes awards ceremony in Beverly Hills on January 13, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Robyn BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

This emerging Jay Leno-Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show situation is all Scott Sassa's fault.

Who? Let me explain.

It was a Thursday afternoon in September of 2002. I walked from my Access Hollywood dressing room past the "Glam Squad" -- aka hair n' makeup -- which led me to walk by the infamous "top-of-the-stairs Tonight Show music artists dressing room."

I say infamous because during my 12-years at Access, I always got a whiff of some interesting horticultural experiment emanating from behind that closed, but very happy and mellow, door. I turned left and bounded down the stairs to the hallway that separates our studio and the studio where Jay Leno shoots The Tonight Show. It was here where I a got a whiff of something else. I got a whiff of Scott Sassa.

He was the West Coast Entertainment Chief for NBC. It was a whiff determination. He was rushing into a Tonight Show dressing room. In that dressing room was Jimmy Fallon. Then Sassa left. Then he came back in. A lot of hush-hush stuff happenin'. I've seen just about everything in that hallway between Access Hollywood and The Tonight Show. A kangaroo taking a walk. Tom Cruise chatting earnestly with and giving his full attention to a 22-year-old NBC Page. Taylor Swift nervously waiting to perform. President Obama strolling down the hall with a big smile.

But this Sassa-Fallon business was in 2002, the year Obama was reelected to his Illinois Senate seat. It also seemed to be the time Sassa was doing some serious campaigning to keep Fallon not only in the NBC family at SNL, but something more. There were all kinds of "hallway rumors" whispered about at the time. Whatever happened in that room, Sassa was able to keep Fallon at NBC long enough to be around when a seminal late-night event happened in 2004. That's when NBC promised The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien not in 2004, but in 2009. Even now that sounds dumb. "Hey, we're giving you the job in 5-years...and let's make Leno a lame-duck for 60-months!"

Speaking of ducks, oh wait, that comes later. It was at that time when Fallon's name starting popping up as a replacement to take over Conan's 12:35-slot. Fallon was hell-bent on a movie career in 2004 and left Saturday Night Live to find out no one was hell-bent on seeing any of his movies. But there was someone who wanted to see Fallon, but not in movies. It was SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels. Lorne knew and made it known that Fallon was the guy to replace Conan. I did interviews with Leno and Conan when the 2004 announcement was made and I could tell Jay had no desire to go. I also did interviews with both hosts when Leno was finishing his final shows in 2009 and Conan was ramping up to take over. I could tell Jay really didn't want to go and that Conan was nervous as hell to take over The Tonight Show mantle.

I've been on many sets/shows/locations around the world and I can instantly get a sense of the vibe. This was a full-blown mess. It just wasn't right. Leno was still killing it in the ratings. Conan was still more of a niche guy, smaller audience and, more importantly, not someone who the broader Leno-audience would naturally embrace.

I remember walking back after the interviews and telling my producer, "This doesn't make sense, even in our wacky, screwed up world of TV." We both shook our heads. Then, a year later, you had Leno's inexplicable move to 10 p.m. and you knew the debacle was now in full Spinal Tap mode. I remember being at the NBC press conference announcing Leno's move and thinking, "Thank God Johnny Carson isn't alive to see this."

Now, eight years after Johnny's death, his Tonight Show is back in the news as rumors circulate of yet another new host sitting behind the desk -- Jimmy Fallon. And it's because of another Jimmy, that Kimmel fella at ABC. His younger-skewing show moved in January to face off with Leno at 11:35 p.m. In fact, Kimmel has a good portion of the 18-49 audience, enough to tie Leno, even though Leno's been there for nearly 20-years. Fallon also has a nice young audience. What's crazy is that Leno still beats Kimmel by nearly a million viewers every night and David Letterman by a half-million or so.

More or less, it's the same situation as 2004 and 2009. The Tonight Show is number one. By the way, all this talk of Fallon replacing Leno is over a measly hundred-thousand or so viewers. This comes in a week when A&E'S Duck Dynasty premiered with nearly more viewers than Kimmel, Leno and Letterman combined -- 8.6 million strong. And please don't tell the NBC executives how the Duck Dynasty boys did in 18-49 year olds, because then you'll see the Robertsons hosting The Tonight Show. Thank you, Scott Sassa.