Jay Leno admits that his public reaction to NBC’s “Tonight Show” succession plan back in 2004 amounted to “a white lie,” and in private he took the news a good deal harder than he let on.
“It broke my heart. It really did — I was devastated,” Leno says on Thursday’s (Jan. 28) “Oprah Winfrey Show.” “This was the job that I had always wanted, and this was the only job that ever mattered in show business — to me. It’s the job every comic aspires to. It was just like, why?”
The roots of NBC’s current late-night situation can be traced back to that time, when NBC announced it would hand “The Tonight Show” over to Conan O’Brien in 2009. When it became clear Leno would still be on top when he left, the network tried to devise a strategy to keep both him and O’Brien — and you know the rest of the story.
As for Leno’s lie? “I did tell a white lie on the air,” Leno says, per The Watcher’s Mo Ryan. “I said, ‘I’m going to retire.’ It was just maybe easier that way.” He also says he “assumed” that when he left “Tonight,” he’d end up at another network.
The interview also touches on Jimmy Kimmel’s takedown of him on “The Jay Leno Show” (“I got sucker-punched. … I could have edited it. But I said, ‘No, no, put it out there'”); whether he talked to O’Brien about the now-scrapped plan to move “The Tonight Show” to midnight (“It wasn’t my place to call Conan”); and the hit his nice-guy image has taken in recent weeks (“I think it’s a little unfair. And I’m going to work hard to rehabilitate that image”).
Leno also had some less-than-kind words for NBC — “NBC could not have handled it worse. From 2004 onward, this whole thing was a huge mess” — and what seemed like genuine wishes for O’Brien to find a new gig soon.
“I hope Conan gets a job somewhere else,” Leno says. “I hope he gets on at FOX or somewhere, and we all compete together. And it raises the level of interest. And you know what happens, the best one wins. Maybe I’ll get my butt kicked, maybe we’ll win.”
Photo credit: Harpo Productions