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NBC cans Leno again -- do they really mean it this time?

Jay Leno had to know the head honchos at NBC were gunning for him when he told the following joke last Monday night: "You know the whole legend of St. Patrick, right?" he asked the audience in his opening monologue. "St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland -- and then they came to the United States and became NBC executives."

The harsh humor directed at the guys who hold his fate in their hands is just the latest sign that the star and the bosses pretty much detest each other. So, is Jay really being replaced by Jimmy Fallon? Is "The Tonight Show" going to leave Los Angeles (aka Burbank) and move to New York City where it was born back in the days of Steve Allen? Is this going to be another ill-conceived idea cooked up in NBC's corporate suite that will cost the network even more viewers? We will find out as the latest Machiavellian twist in the serious business of late-hours TV comedy unfolds.

Until Jay Leno took over NBC's "Tonight Show" in 1992, late-night television was a realm dominated by one undisputed king, Johnny Carson. Then the unending wars of succession began.

David Letterman had held down the afterhours slot following Carson, biding his time in the hope of moving to 11:30 when Johnny finally called it quits. When Mr. Leno grabbed the crown instead, Mr. Letterman moved to CBS and promptly beat his rival in the ratings game -- at least for a while.

That old rivalry between Carson's would-be heirs seems like an orderly duel compared to the current pig pile of joke-slinging hosts. A revolving lineup of ambitious comedians on several networks has been taking a shot at stealing pieces of the nocturnal audience, scrambling the ratings equation in the process. One of the most successful of the bunch is Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. The word is that his show is being moved up to directly take on "The Tonight Show." Despite the fact that Mr. Leno still tops the ratings, inside sources at NBC say it is certain the 62-year-old veteran will be replaced in 2014 by the youngest of the young upstarts, 38-year-old Mr. Fallon, the current host of NBC's "Late Night."

Network execs are betting their Jimmy will do a better job holding younger viewers in a face off with ABC's Jimmy. Of course, an earlier gaggle of programming gurus notoriously tried this before. In 2009, "The Tonight Show" was awarded to the then-host of "Late Night," Conan O'Brien, and Leno was given the consolation prize of a show at 10 p.m. That did not work out well. Within months, Jay was back and Mr. O'Brien was cast into the comedy wilderness until he landed a gig with TBS.

Is Mr. Leno really gone this time? Stay tuned.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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