Jay Leno, Oprah Winfrey
Jay Leno said he was "devastated" when NBC executives first told him in 2004 that they were giving The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien.
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Leno appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show Thursday to tell his side of the story of the recent late-night war that erupted when NBC decided to cancel Leno's prime-time show and bump O'Brien's Tonight Show to 12:05.
Although Leno reacted fairly positively to stepping aside for Conan in 2004, he said it was a tough pill to swallow. "It broke my heart. It really did; I was devastated," he told Winfrey. "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?"
Leno said he told a white lie on the air when he suggested he would retire after his Tonight Show tenure ended. He said in 2004, long before NBC offered him a show at 10 o'clock, he always assumed he would get another job with a different network, which he said would have been "a lot of work."
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He also responded to the perception that he stole Conan's job. "It all comes down to numbers in show business," he said. "This is almost the perfect storm of bad things happening. You have two hit shows — Tonight Show No. 1 and Conan No. 1. You move them both to another situation. And what are the odds that both would do extremely poorly? If Conan's numbers had been a little bit higher, it wouldn't even be an issue. But in show business, there's always somebody waiting in the wings. Being me."
Leno did not, however, attempt to ask how Conan would feel, he said. "It wasn't my place to call Conan," Leno said. "They made this offer to me. And I said, 'Do you think Conan will go for this?' And they said, 'We'll ask him tomorrow.' 'OK, let me know what happens.' And then... I guess Conan had his article in the paper and that was that."
Of Conan's claims that moving Tonight to 12:05 would be "destructive to the franchise," Leno said: "Well, if you look at where [Conan's Tonight Show] ratings were [long pause], it was already destructive to the franchise."
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When asked if he thought he was being unfairly portrayed in the media, Leno replied, "Yeah, I think so. But I think you have to look for a bad guy. I mean, I think it's funny that they have a picture of me and Roman Polanski. Somehow these are quite similar. You have a TV show; he had sex with a 13-year old girl with Quaaludes. Yeah, that's about equal."
Winfrey asked if NBC could have handled the situation better. "Anything they did would have been better than this. 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," Leno joked. "NBC could not have handled it worse. From 2004 onward, this whole thing was a huge mess."
Leno told Winfrey he hasn't talked to Conan since all the changes were made. He said he wanted to call, but it "didn't seem appropriate." He also said he wasn't hurt by Conan's jokes.
"It's what we do, you know," Leno said. "It's like being a fighter and say, 'When you got punched in the head, did it hurt?' Well, yeah, but you're a fighter. That's what you do."
Conan O'Brien Says Goodbye to Tonight Show
And as for why he would want to go back to The Tonight Show, after having hosted for 17 years and lost the gig? "You know, if you're a gunfighter, you like to die in the street," Leno said.
O'Brien aired his last Tonight Show on Jan. 22. The Jay Leno Show will end its run on Feb. 9, and Leno will return to Tonight March 1.