Look who’s talking? Oprah interviewed Jay Leno yesterday about the much debated “Tonight Show” debacle. NBC executives jerked around both Leno and fellow talk show host Conan O’Brien. Last Friday, O’Brien gave up “The Tonight Show” rather than see it compromised. Oh, O’Brien walked away with a huge chunk of money and a ton of favorable publicity as well.
On the other hand, Leno did not come out the clear winner, either. He gets to host “The Tonight Show” again, but has become the target of bad press and dissing from fans for not being a real stand-up guy. The reason: he didn’t call out the NBC executives over that tacky plan to shift “The Tonight Show” from its traditional 11:35 p.m. time period to 12:05 a.m., which would have allowed a half-hour version of “The Jay Leno Show” to start in the 11:35 p.m. slot.
In the interview on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Leno answered some tough questions, and in doing so, smoothed out a few dents in his public image. I encountered the comedian a number of times when I worked as a news writer at NBC and on occasion, in the local Burbank community. I once bumped into Leno, with a staffer, making a food run for “The Tonight Show” crew at a McDonald’s in Burbank. Each time I met Leno, he came across as a great guy. Also, I’m a fan. However, I was quite disappointed with the way Leno handled himself in “The Tonight Show” mess.
After reading the transcript of his interview with Oprah on Nikki Finke’s Deadline.com/Hollywood site, I better understand Leno’s position and perspective.
Leno admits NBC “broke his heart” when they told him in 2004, that despite being number one, he would get the boot from “The Tonight Show” five years down the road.
“…I was devastated. This is the job that I always wanted and it was the only job that ever mattered in show business to me. It’s the job every comic aspires to. And it was just like, “What’s–why–what is it?” “Well, we’re getting pressure here and Conan’s people want to make this announcement and to make sure you do leave we want to announce it right now, you know, prior to the five years.” And I said, “Can we at least wait and as I said the other night on my show, couldn’t we wait until I’m number two and then say, okay, he dropped to number two, that’s the reason we’re moving you.”
How did Leno feel when his prime time show failed?
“… I felt bad for everybody on the show and I felt bad for our affiliates. A couple weeks ago I called the head of the affiliate board and I said listen, they’re the ones that canceled us, and I said, “I’m sorry I let you guys down. I mean, you guys supported us, you went along with the decision. I’m sorry our show wasn’t successful for you.”
Leno says that notorious late night talk show plan was a surprise to him, too.
“I never expected this to happen. People think you’re behind the scenes pulling strings. 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 that? What happened was NBC came to me and they said, “Look, your show was down 14%, Conan’s show was down 49%. We have a plan. We want to keep you both.”
Why did he agree to return to “The Tonight Show?”
“You know, if you’re a gunfighter, you like to die in the street.”
Do you think you’re robbing O’Brien of his shot at the big time?
“No, because again, this is an affiliate decision. The affiliates felt 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. If the numbers had been there, they wouldn’t have asked me. And they only asked me after Conan turned down moving it back half an hour.”
What does Leno think about the way NBC handled the situation?
“Anything they did would have been better than this. Anything. Anything they did. If they’d come in and shot everybody, I mean, it would have been people murdered, but at least it would have been a two-day story. I mean, yes. NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 onward, this whole thing was a huge, a huge mess, yeah.”
Despite all that has happened, Leno thinks he can revive “The Tonight Show.”
“I hope so. I think so. Yeah. And I hope Conan gets a job somewhere else. I hope he gets on at Fox or somewhere and we all compete together. “Ooh, Conan’s back on,” 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.”
If you didn’t get a chance to catch the interview on TV, check out the transcript on Finke’s site, it is well worth the read. Also, Talk Show Diva, Oprah, has more on the controversy on her website, too.