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Fallon replaces Leno on ‘Tonight Show,’ but the joke’s on Letterman

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Story highlights

NEW: New York Times media reporter Bill Carter says Leno was "on board with this"

Fallon will replace Leno in spring 2014

Leno first left the show in 2009 but returned after his new show failed

The new "Tonight Show" will also return to New York

CNN —  

Do comedy writers share notes or do they just think alike?

On the day “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno announced he was passing the baton to Jimmy Fallon, he and an old rival shared nearly identical jokes on their late night shows.

In his opening monologue on Wednesday, Leno said it had been a tough day for him.

“Had a really awkward day today,” the late night host said in mock anguish. “Had to call David Letterman and tell him he didn’t get ‘The Tonight Show’ … again.”

At nearly the same instant on the “Late Show,” Letterman addressed his rival’s impending retirement.

“I got a call from my mom today, she says, ‘Well, David, I see you didn’t get the ‘Tonight Show’ again,’” Letterman said with a shrug. “What are you going to do, mom?” he asked.

A bit of comedy serendipity? Maybe it was just too tempting to pass up.

Many expected Letterman would take over “The Tonight Show” when former host Johnny Carson retired in 1992, but the gig instead went to Leno. Letterman jumped networks to start “The Late Show” on CBS, which airs opposite Leno on NBC.

How Twitter helped Fallon get Leno’s job

Emotional Fallon

Fallon bounded onto his “Late Night” set, full of energy, if a bit manic, after word of his new job.

“Hello! Welcome! This is ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,’ for now,” he said to chuckles. “You guys probably heard the news – I’m going to be taking over ‘The Tonight Show’ next February!

“But don’t worry, until February, our focus is right here on whatever this show is called.”

Later, Fallon’s voice cracked as he paused and struggled for words at times.

“I want to thank everyone here at ‘Late Night.’ The staff, the crew and, of course, The Roots,” he said, referring to his late night band. “I have to say thanks to Jay Leno for being so gracious. It means so much to me to have his support.”

An hour earlier, Leno congratulated Fallon in his opening monologue, while taking another swipe at the NBC executives that are showing him the door.

“I just have one request of Jimmy. We’ve all fought, kicked and scratched to get this network up to fifth place, okay? Now we have to keep it there.” he deadpanned. “Jimmy don’t let it slip into sixth. We’re counting on you.”

Leno will wrap up his 22-year run as host in spring 2014, with Jimmy Fallon officially signing on as his replacement.

On his Twitter account, Fallon said, “Today was one of the most exciting days of my life.”

Rumors have been swirling

The expectation that Leno would leave NBC’s legendary late-night program has been building recently, and Fallon’s appointment isn’t surprising in the least.

He’s had a swift rise to “Tonight’s” chair, having hosted “Late Night” for just four years, but Fallon’s transition was treated as such a near certainty that both hosts worked the headlines into their nightly routines.

While Fallon initially downplayed the rumors, Leno went after his employer on a regular basis.

He compared NBC executives to snakes, joked about the network’s sagging ratings and kidded that the rumored late-night shuffle was like NBC’s version of March Madness.

Monologue: Leno congratulates Fallon

Just two days before the big announcement, Fallon and Leno again made light of the reports with a parody of the song “Tonight” from the musical “West Side Story.”

With Leno’s contract set to expire in fall 2014, industry observers said the move was only a matter of time.

And this, says media reporter Bill Carter, was the right time.

“Jay told me that really the difference with this was he went along with it,” said Carter, a New York Times reporter who wrote “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy” – a book that chronicles the last time Leno left “Tonight.”

“He agrees with this. He’s on board with this.”

This has happened before

Leno first exited “Tonight” in 2009 after 17 years as host, passing the torch to Conan O’Brien, who was then the host of “Late Night.”

Leno was moved to prime time with his own program, “The Jay Leno Show,” that fall.

But when that brought dismal ratings, NBC decided to put Leno back in charge of “Tonight” at the start of 2010, leaving O’Brien without