The NBC host tells Oprah he could have edited it out of the show but opted to leave it in

By Hilary Shenfeld
January 28, 2010 01:00 PM
Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC; Harpo Productions/AP

Sharing his feelings publicly for the first time about the behind-the-scenes machinations that eventually led to this month’s NBC late-night debacle, Jay Leno admitted on Thursday that being asked six years ago to step aside so Conan O’Brien could take over the Tonight Show came as a crushing blow.

“It broke my heart, it really did,” the TV host, 59, said in an interview airing on Thursday’s The Oprah Winfrey Show. “I was devastated.”

Leno said that NBC executives told him in 2004 that they didn’t want to lose O’Brien and were going to ask him take over Leno’s spot as host in 2009. “That was pretty shocking,” Leno said. “I most certainly did,” feel disrespected.
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Saying that the Tonight gig was a job “every comic aspires to,” Leno told Winfrey he didn’t think the move made much sense, as the show was still No. 1 in late night.

Leno asked the brass to wait at least until he dropped in the ratings and then “that would be the reason” for the switch, but O’Brien’s contract was due to expire and the powers-that-be didn’t want him leaving the network.

To explain the shakeup, Leno said, “I told a little white lie on the air,” saying he was going to retire. “It made it easier that way.”

Had Plans to Jump

Leno did plan to leave the network, he said, even asking to be let out of his contract so he could take his show elsewhere, but NBC declined and, in fall 2008, came up with the idea for The Jay Leno Show, in prime time. “I said, okay, let’s try it.” Not only did he love the job, he said, but it would be a way to keep his 175 show staffers employed.

But the new show wasn’t doing well, dropping 14 points in the ratings. “The show failed because it was basically doing a late-night talk show at 10 o’clock,” said. “I was given enough time,” he said, but, “I got fired this time because my show did not perform.”

Under O’Brien, however, The Tonight Show was doing much worse, falling 49 percent since the former Late Night host took over, Leno said. It was the ratings, Leno said, not a selfish move on his part, which prompted NBC to ask Leno to come back to his show on late-night TV. At the same time, they wanted to move O’Brien’s show to midnight, a move Conan rejected and which touched off a firestorm of bad press against Leno.

‘Sucker-Punched’ by Kimmel

In another candid admission, Leno said he was taken aback when Jimmy Kimmel took the opportunity to slam him during a Leno show appearance a few weeks ago. “I got sucker-punched,” he said. Leno said he could have edited the interview, “but I said, No. Put it out there. I walked into it.'” He said when you get hit, “You get right up again. You don’t whine and complain.”
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As for David Letterman, another late-night host who jumped into the fray with shots at Jay, Leno said it was only fair to punch back, as he did with a joke about Letterman’s blackmail scandal. Though Winfrey (who has had her own testy moments with Letterman) said she thought it was beneath him, Leno responded that “I did one joke. I had a cheap shot thrown at me and I threw one cheap shot back.”

Leno also said he was surprised at all the attention the late-night war has generated and blasted NBC for the way in which they handled the negotiations, but doesn’t blame himself for O’Brien losing his job. “It all comes down to numbers in show business,” he said. “If the numbers had been there, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Rebuilding Image

Leno, who said the jabs he and O’Brien took at each other during the fallout was to be expected from two comedians, called O’Brien’s finale a “great show.” He said he doesn’t feel any animosity, but, acknowledging that he has been portrayed as the bad guy, said when he returns to Tonight on March 1, “I’m going to work hard to rehabilitate that image.”

He said, “a lot of damage control” must take place, but he plans to “do good shows and not be bitter.” He also hopes O’Brien does well elsewhere. “I hope Conan gets a job somewhere else and we all compete together. And the best man wins.”