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Jay Leno will headline the White House Correspondents Dinner

After taking an exit deal worth an estimated $45M from NBC, former 'Tonight Show' host Conan O'Brien is set to debut a new late-night talk show on TBS on November 8.

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By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, January 22, 2010

The White House Correspondents Association has picked Jay Leno -- also known as this week's most publicly unpopular stand-up comic -- to headline the White House Correspondents Dinner in May.

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An NBC rep confirmed the invitation to The TV Column.

To be clear, the association asked Leno weeks ago -- when he was simply the host of a prime-time show that was failing five nights a week. But when he appears at the annual Washington bash -- which over the past few years has become a Hollywood petting zoo -- Leno will be the guy who pushed aside Conan O'Brien to become the newly returned host of NBC's "Tonight" show. He has also been the butt of pretty much every other late-night talk-show host's jokes for the past couple of weeks.

In case you've missed the story, Leno retired from NBC's late-night show last year. But instead of spending more time with his cars, he hung around to help NBC with its Program to the Margins campaign. He was given responsibility for doing the best darned 10 o'clock comedy show he could, so as to help out Conan O'Brien -- the guy who had pushed him out of the "Tonight" show gig -- by feeding Conan the biggest possible audience into the late-night time slot. That didn't go so well -- imagine!

NBC suits responded by announcing a demotion for Conan -- his "Tonight" was being moved and would, instead of starting at 11:30 p.m., start the next morning, so that they could give Jay back his old 11:35 p.m. "Tonight Show" start time. Conan refused and now Jay's got "The Tonight Show" back. And that is how things are done in Hollywood.

Here's what Jay had to say on his soon-to-be-ex prime-time show Thursday, about NBC's announcement that day that it had wrapped up a deal to show Conan the door:

"NBC and Conan O'Brien made an announcement earlier today as many of you know Conan is leaving the network. His final show airs tomorrow night.

"I have chosen to stay on the Titanic. I don't believe the iceberg is that big, the biggest ship, this ship will never sink and Kev . . . when it does, Kev as it's sinking you will play us . . . you'll be here for us so. Apparently we'll be back on 'The Tonight Show' March 1 after the Olympics, so that's pretty much where we are."

Conan is now officially the shortest-serving host of America's longest-running late night talk-show franchise, at a cost to NBC of about $45 million under terms of a deal signed Thursday.

Friday is O'Brien's last "Tonight Show," clearing the way for Leno to return to the program he hosted, and kept in first place in the ratings, for 15 of his 17 years on the job.

Minutes after the two parties sent up the puff of white smoke Thursday morning, signaling the network's deal with Conan was finally done, NBC spewed out another statement saying how "pleased" it was that Jay was returning "to host the franchise that he helmed brilliantly and successfully for so many years."

Jay has signed a new multi-year deal to host "The Tonight Show" which -- like his previous contract to host it -- has 11:35 p.m. time-slot protection. Clever Leno!


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