Jay Leno says he didn't 'sabotage' 10 p.m. show to get 'Tonight Show' back from Conan

·5 min read
A man in a suit speaks with his hands out in front of him
Jay Leno, photographed in 2015, is opening up about the late-aughts shake-up at "The Tonight Show." (Richard Shotwell / Invision/Associated Press)

For the record:
3:33 p.m. Aug. 2, 2022: Jay Leno returned to “The Tonight Show” in 2010, not in 2019 as previously stated.

Comedian Jay Leno has opened up about the infamous "Tonight Show" shake-up and subsequent burn he inflicted on short-lived host Conan O'Brien.

Leno, who hosted "The Tonight Show" for 17 years before departing for the first time in 2009, then unexpectedly returned for another stint the following year, denied Sunday that he had "deliberately sabotaged" his 10 p.m. "The Jay Leno Show" so he could return to NBC's 11:30 p.m. offering.

The Emmy Award winner's schedule switch infamously ousted his first "Tonight Show" successor, O'Brien, and led to the "Late Night" comedian and former "Saturday Night Live" writer taking his talents over to TBS. O'Brien had worked at the Peacock network in some capacity since 1993.

But "The Jay Leno Show" was an experiment by NBC to take on the hugely expensive broadcast-network dramas in the 10 o'clock hour for a fraction of the production cost, Leno told Bill Maher on Sunday's episode of "Club Random Podcast." It just didn't pan out as planned.

"I was [hearing], 'Oh, Leno deliberately sabotaged his show to try and get "The Tonight Show" [back],'" said Leno, 72. "No, that doesn't work. It doesn't work that way. You try and do the best you can and it didn't work."

A lot of network executive back-and-forth ensued. Leno said NBC offered him a return to the 11:30 time slot but he said he "didn't want to go through this again," especially if it meant bumping O'Brien to the midnight slot — an offer that meant Leno would do a half-hour show at 11:30 p.m. instead of his previous one-hour show.

"I said, 'Talk to Conan. If he'll go to 12, I'll do a half-hour. Just do a monologue and one guest. OK.' And of course Conan didn't want to do that. That's when he wrote the letter and then they put me back in and we became No. 1 [in the ratings] again."

Maher asked Leno why he didn't just go to a rival network instead of sticking around at NBC after essentially being "fired twice for being No. 1."

"I'm pretty loyal," Leno said. "You know, sometimes the czar you have is better than the one you're going to get. And here's the thing, then you have your old team shooting at you as well. I just figured, let's just play this out and see what happens. This all happened fairly quickly. "

Leno said that he was getting offers from ABC and called up the host of "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" to discuss what his arrival at that network might mean for Kimmel. That move didn't pan out either, and Leno never followed up. That drama became public too.

"I suppose I should have called Jimmy and explained to him again, but I didn't," Leno said. "I don't know why I didn't. I just didn't. I thought he probably would figure it out. But I think maybe he was hurt by that, and I apologized to him for that."

Leno, of course, returned to "The Tonight Show" stage in 2010 after O'Brien left. He ultimately bid farewell to the late-night institution for good in February 2014. "Saturday Night Live" star Jimmy Fallon replaced him and remains the current host. O'Brien went on to host "Conan" on TBS, where it ran for 11 seasons before concluding last year. In a 2010 "60 Minutes" interview, O'Brien said he "wouldn't have done" what Leno did if the roles had been reversed.

But Leno, who currently hosts the syndicated game show "You Bet Your Life," didn't seem fazed on Sunday.

"I wouldn't change anything ’cause it all worked out fine," he told Maher. "But at least I rose and fell by my own hand as opposed to other people moving things around."

"They felled you for the crime of being No. 1," Maher said, astonished that NBC didn't milk its "cash cow" for as long as it could.

Leno did plenty of name-dropping during the podcast and didn't shy away from the other infamous late-night ouster he was involved in: Taking over "The Tonight Show" from Johnny Carson rather than letting heir apparent David Letterman get the gig. (Letterman left NBC over the move to host the competing late-night series "The Late Show" on CBS from 1993 to 2015.)

"Dave [Letterman] never had 'The Tonight Show,'" Leno said, to Maher's disbelief. "No. Here's the situation. ... Dave was a huge hit at 12:30, huge. Johnny was a huge hit at 11:30. When I started subbing for Johnny, I was lucky enough to be able to maintain Johnny's ratings. So with me there they had a hit at 11:30 and a hit at 12:30. And NBC did not want to sacrifice one hit.

"If they moved Letterman down, I would go to CBS, I would just go somewhere else, and then they would have a wide open spot. Plus, there were a lot of executives that did not like Dave."

Leno said that moving Letterman down on the schedule "wouldn't have gained them anything."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.