Jay Leno gave viewers a peek behind the NBC curtain on his show Monday night, explaining his side of the events in the ongoing The Tonight Show controversy that has led to a nasty, public spat between him, Conan O’Brien and the Peacock Network.
Leno explained that in 2004, NBC officials, nervous about losing O’Brien to a rival network, told him they were going to give The Tonight Show to O’Brien in 2009 to keep him on board.
“I said, ‘well, I’ve been number one for 12 years,’” Leno said. “They said, ‘we know that, but we don’t think you can sustain that.’ I said, ‘okay. How about until I fall to number two, then you fire me?’ ‘No, we made this decision.’ I said, ‘that’s fine.’”
Leno said he tried to avoid another public fallout over the same job, akin to his early 90s battles with David Letterman.
“Don’t blame Conan O’Brien,” Leno said Monday, referring to the turn of events that led Leno to lose The Tonight Show back in 2004. “Nice guy, good family guy, great guy. He and I have talked and not a problem since then … I said, ‘I’ll retire just to avoid what happened the last time.’”
Leno said as his top-rated Tonight Show gig drew to a close, he asked for his release from the network, who suggested his ill-fated prime time program, The Jay Leno Show, as an alternative. Cajoled by NBC, and eager to keep his staff employed, Leno said he agreed.
When The Jay Leno Show was cancelled, Leno said he asked for his release a second time to no avail, as NBC officials told him he was “still a valuable asset to this company,” to which he replied: “How valuable can I be? You fired me twice.”
Leno said at that point, NBC execs, browbeaten by complaining affiliates, floated the idea of Leno hosting a 30-minute program beginning at 11:35 p.m. EST.
Leno said the execs told him O’Brien would be content with that arrangement, which was good enough for him.
“I don’t have a manager, I don’t have an agent, that’s my handshake deal,” Leno said.
O’Brien refused the arrangement, Leno said, and NBC execs offered him his old job back, which he accepted with an understanding he would be taking a show O’Brien was walking away from, as opposed to pushing him out.
Leno ended the surreal speech with sugary words for his late night rival and a peek at what’s to come.
“Through all of this, Conan O’Brien has been a gentleman,” Leno said. “He’s a good guy. I have no animosity towards him. This is all business … it didn’t work so we might have an answer for you tomorrow. So, we’ll see. That’s basically where it is.”