The battle of Team Jay versus Team Conan has been raging for weeks, and it’s doubtful that anyone will switch sides after Jay Leno’s Thursday appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
As Winfrey pointed out during an hourlong interview on the set of Leno’s prime-time show, Leno is now seen as “the bad guy” in the affair of “The Tonight Show.”
Earlier this month, Conan O’Brien walked away from the late-night institution when NBC executives announced that they wanted Leno to once again follow the local news and that they wanted to move O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” to 12:05 a.m. EST.
None of that came to pass, because Leno, as he said, “got his old job back” (he returns to “The Tonight Show” March 1).
But according to Leno, he got his job back only after NBC canceled his prime-time program and after Conan told NBC — and the world — that he wouldn’t agree to “The Tonight Show” being moved.
“Conan said he thought it would be destructive to the franchise,” Winfrey said.
“Well, if you look at where the (O’Brien ‘Tonight Show’) ratings were, it was already destructive to the franchise,” Leno replied.
He also said the media had been “unfair” to him.
“I mean, I think it’s funny that they have a picture of me and Roman Polanski. Somehow these are quite similar,” Leno said. “You have a TV show, he had sex with a 13-year old girl with Quaaludes. Yeah, that’s about equal.”
Despite the flashes of bitterness, it was clear that Leno wanted the world to know that, contrary to popular opinion, he did have hurt feelings about the whole matter, feelings that stretched back to 2004. That’s when NBC first came up with a succession plan that would have put O’Brien behind the “Tonight Show” desk and Leno into retirement in 2009.
“It broke my heart. It really did. I was devastated,” Leno said. “This was the job that I had always wanted and this was the only job that ever mattered in show business, to me. ... It was just like, why?”
Since that point, NBC had handled the whole situation terribly, especially recently, Leno told Oprah.
“Anything they did would have been better than this,” Leno said. “If they had come in and shot everybody. It would have been ‘Oh, people were murdered,’ but at least it would have been a two-day story. NBC could not have handled it worse.”
Winfrey repeatedly asked why he didn’t just retire or at least call O’Brien to consult him about the plan NBC had proposed. It never seemed like the right time to call O’Brien, Leno said. And though he was sure throughout that he was “doing the right thing,” he also admitted to some “agonizing” doubts.
“How can you do the right thing and just have it go so wrong? ‘Maybe I’m not doing the right thing,’ I would think,” Leno said. “Maybe I’m doing something wrong. This many people are angry and upset over a television show. ... My show got canceled. They weren’t happy with the other guy’s show. They said, ‘We want you to go back,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ And this seemed to make a lot of people really upset. And I go, ‘Well, who wouldn’t take that job though? Who wouldn’t do that?’”
But by ending up back at “The Tonight Show,” wasn’t he “taking away Conan’s dream?” Winfrey asked.
“No,” Leno replied. “Because, again, this is an affiliate decision. Affiliates felt that the ratings were low. This was the first time in the 60-year history of ‘The Tonight Show’ that ‘The Tonight Show’ would have lost money. And that’s what it comes down to. It’s really just a matter of dollars and cents.”
It’s worth pointing out that Josef Adalian of The Wrap has written a story that calls into question the assertion from Leno and from NBC head Jeff Gaspin that “The Tonight Show” was in danger of losing money.
“Unless NBC is being tricky and counting start-up costs for O’Brien — such as the $50 million studio and office complex it built for ‘Tonight’ — it’s hard to see how the show could so quickly go from profit to deficit in less than one year,” Adalian wrote.
Leno did say he felt bad for O’Brien, but he largely portrayed himself, as he has for weeks, as a passive player the drama. In his mind, he’s a guy whose has been “fired twice” and went back to the “Tonight Show” mainly to keep his staff employed.
To retire would be an “ego decision,” he said. That would be “the selfish thing to do. You walk out and say to the 170 other people who work here, ‘Listen, I don’t want to get my reputation ruined, I don’t want anyone talking bad about me. I’ve got enough money, I’m going to leave. You people can all fend for yourselves.’ ... As long as I’m working, they’re working. That seems to make sense to me. Is it a little selfish in that I still like being on TV? Oh sure.”
Winfrey, a media mogul who has weathered her own share of controversies, said she was surprised by a joke that Leno made about the infidelities of David Letterman, who has been hammering Leno for weeks (“I thought that was beneath you, actually,” Winfrey said). But she also said she was taken aback at the anti-Leno sentiment.
“I could understand people thinking that you were selfish if you owned the show and controlled the show,” Winfrey said. “It’s a little surprising to me that people think you stole the show when in fact it wasn’t your show to steal. It’s owned by NBC.”
“I never expected this to happen. People think you’re behind the scenes, pulling strings,” he added. “There’s no strings to pull. I have a show that’s been canceled. So why would I have any power to go, ‘Oh, I want (‘The Tonight Show’)?
The portrait Leno painted of the passive man on the sidelines doesn’t square with his reputation of being relentlessly ambitious and driven. This is the man who, according to the book “The Late Shift,” hid in a closet in the ‘90s to hear NBC executives discussing his fate.
To hear Leno describe it, everything that occurred during the last month or two was the handiwork of the affiliates and ham-fisted NBC executives. Leno did allow that he told a “white lie on the air” in 2004.
“I said, ‘I’m going to retire.’” It was just maybe easier that way.”