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What to know about Conan O'Brien's scandalous Tonight Show exit after 'weird' return – and the million-dollar payout

The former Conan host returned to The Tonight Show over ten years after his conflict with Jay Leno

Jay Leno & Conan O'Brien - Star Casino Night - 2003 TCA Press Tour
Beatriz Colon
Beatriz Colon - New York
New York WriterNew York
10 April 2024
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Conan O'Brien took a "weird" trip down memory lane in the name of late night television last night.

On Tuesday, the former Late Night host stopped by his old, brief, stomping grounds, The Tonight Show set, as a guest of current host Jimmy Fallon.

The comedian, who hosted Late Night from 1993 to 2009, and had a tumultuous two-year stint on The Tonight Show the following year, admitted: "It's weird to come back… I haven't been in this building for such a long time, and I haven't been on this floor in forever," adding: "I was here for 16 years doing the Late Night show before we went out to LA, and right across the hall, all these memories came flooding back to me."

Below, catch up on the late night shocker that led to the highly-anticipated reunion, and the impressive payout he received because of it.

Comedian Conan O'Brien during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show Tuesday, April 9, 2024© Getty
Conan returned to The Tonight Show on April 9

What happened with Conan and Jay Leno?

The conflict at NBC between Conan and Jay Leno was a public relations disaster years in the making. Jay started hosting The Tonight Show in 1992 following legendary host's Johnny Carson's retirement, and Conan started hosting Late Night (now helmed by Seth Meyers) the following year.

In 2001, when Conan's contract with NBC was close to expiring, they kept him on by extending his contract with the promise that he would be the next Tonight Show host, however his predecessor was unaware of the agreement until about 2004.

When the time came in 2009, in an attempt to keep both of their stars pleased, NBC offered Jay a primetime slot before O'Brian with The Jay Leno Show, however neither received strong ratings. Not satisfied with the quick fix, they then bumped Jay back to his late night slot, pushing The Tonight Show with Conan to half an hour later, prompting dissent from the latter and his crew.

Talk show host Conan O'Brien appears on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" at the NBC Studios on September 5, 2003 in Burbank, California© Getty
Conan on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2003

Conan's bombshell response

In January 2010, conflict reached an all-time high when Conan released a defiant statement announcing his departure from NBC. He started: "I've been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision," and noted: "Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009… I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future."

MORE: Why did Jon Stewart ever leave The Daily Show in the first place? Inside his unexpected departure and comeback

"I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it," he added, and, in response to the change in time slots, said: "I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction."

Conan O'Brien hosting The Tonight Show on June 2, 2009© Getty
Conan as host of The Tonight Show in June of 2009

How much did NBC pay Conan?

After two weeks of negotiations, on January 21, it was announced that Conan and his staff would receive a $45 million settlement from NBC (about $64.4 million in 2024) to leave the network, and Conan agreed to a contractual seven-month ban from appearing on television.

In November of 2010, he started hosting Conan on TBS, until June 2021, while Jay returned as host of The Tonight Show until his retirement in 2014.

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