Gary Susman
September 27, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Jay Leno has a famously Cal Ripken-esque work ethic, but on Monday, he announced his retirement — effective in five years. In 2009, he said, he’ll vacate his desk at The Tonight Show and pass the torch on to Late Night host Conan O’Brien. Leno will break the news to his audience on Monday night’s show, which marks the 50th anniversary of Tonight‘s debut on NBC.

”In 2009, I’ll be 59 years-old and will have had this dream job for 17 years,” Leno said in a statement. ”When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised [my wife] Mavis I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.”

Tonight, of course, is one of the most celebrated franchises in TV history. Since its premiere on Sept. 27, 1954, it’s had only four permanent hosts: Steve Allen (1954-57), Jack Paar (1957-62), Johnny Carson (1962-92), and Leno. For most of the last decade, Leno has routinely beaten CBS rival David Letterman in the ratings. Letterman, who hosted NBC’s Late Night from 1982-93, was notoriously passed over for the Tonight job in favor of frequent Tonight guest host Leno, leading to his departure for CBS and the hiring of O’Brien in 1993. By sewing up the succession issue five years in advance, NBC will avoid a replay of that messy scenario.

The Tonight Show is one of the great franchises in television, and I am thrilled to get this opportunity,” O’Brien said in a statement. ”I am thankful to everyone at NBC — which has been my home for the last 11 years — and I am particularly grateful to Jay for all the generous support and kindness he has always shown me.” We bet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog is already drooling over the move.

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