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David Letterman Questions NBC's Replacing Leno

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John P. Filo/CBS, Dave Bjerke/NBC, Timothy White/NBC

Despite their on-air rivalry for the past 15 years, David Letterman is displaying empathy for Jay Leno – given the way NBC is showing the Tonight Show host the door, to be replaced by Conan O’Brien on June 1, 2009.

“Unless I’m misunderstanding something, I don’t know why, after the job Jay has done for them, why they would relinquish that,” the CBS Late Show host, 61, tells Rolling Stone in excerpts made available to the Associated Press and The New York Times.

“I guess they thought it was a less messy way to handle what happened to me at NBC. I don’t know.”

Asked what he feels for the 58-year-old Leno – when Jay landed the plum Tonight job as successor to Johnny Carson in 1993, Letterman set up shop at CBS – Dave answers, “I guess empathy is the right word. It’s hard to know what he felt about it. I have to believe he was not happy about it.”

In what will appear to be musical chairs at NBC when the great shift occurs next spring, O’Brien, 45, will assume the Tonight job, while Jimmy Fallon, 33, will take over Late Night.

While O’Brien is “a very funny guy,” says Letterman, viewing him as a prospective rival across the channels, he adds cautiously, “It will be weird to see Conan at 11:30, don’t you think? Which is not to say he can’t succeed, but, no, I don’t know what the competition will be like. I hope we’re able to do okay.”

Extends Invite to Jay

One thing Letterman would like to do is to extend an invitation to Leno on his initial night free. “I think he’d be a great guest on [my] show,” says Letterman. “The first night that he is out of a job, I think that would be a great situation.”

Admitting that, for the past decade, Leno’s ratings are traditionally higher than his own, Letterman finally concedes, “I think he has greater appeal for more people than I do.”

As for his own future, “The way I feel now, I would like to go beyond 2010, not much beyond, but you know, enough to go beyond. You always like to be able to excuse yourself on your own terms,” says Letterman.

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