Jay Leno said Monday that Conan O'Brien was not to blame for NBC's late-night disaster, and that he himself had twice asked out of his contract and told NBC that moving him to 10 o'clock was a bad idea. O'Brien, for his part, kept up his barbs at NBC but not Leno.
After a week in which his late-night rivals have teamed up to accuse him of ousting O'Brien, Leno's remarks — plus his suggestion that NBC may make an announcement Tuesday — signaled his desire for a graceful end to the feud.
But Leno's kind words about O'Brien carried an obvious subtext: He, like O'Brien, was a victim of NBC and equally undeserving of blame.
After his opening The Jay Leno Show monologue, Leno said NBC decided in 2004 to give O'Brien The Tonight Show. He pointed out that he remained at No. 1 in the ratings, he said, but ultimately relented: "I said, 'That's fine.' Don't blame Conan O'Brien. Nice guy, good family guy, great guy."
He said he asked to be released from his Tonight contract because he left the show months before his deal ended, but NBC insisted on moving him to prime time. When his ratings floundered there and NBC asked to move him back to late night, he said he again asked out of his contract.
But NBC told him, wrongly, that O'Brien would move to 12:05 to make room for Leno at 11:35, Leno said.
O'Brien has been locked in negotiations with NBC since rejecting the plan last week. In his opening monologue Monday, he referenced stories about those negotiations that said he would receive a massive payout to leave the network, as long as he agreed not to bad-mouth it. (Without citing a source, Leno said in his monologue Monday that the payout would be $30 million.)
"A lot of papers are reporting that I am now legally prohibited from saying anything negative about NBC," he said, according to a transcript. "So good night, ladies and gentlemen, it's been a great show.
Calls and e-mails to O'Brien's reps were not immediately returned Monday night.