January 19th, 2010
11:06 AM ET

Jay Leno gives his side of the NBC drama

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Jay Leno had a great deal to say Monday night on his show as he shared his side of what's been going down at NBC.

"2004 I'm sitting in my office, an NBC executive comes in and says to me, listen, Conan O'Brien has gotten offers from other networks," Leno explained. " We don't want him to go, so we're going to give him 'The Tonight Show.'  I said, 'well, I've been number one for 12 years.'  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 went on to explain that he offered to retire and asked NBC to let him out of his contract, but was declined.

"They said, 'we want to keep you here,'" Leno said. "Okay.  What are your ideas?  They said, 'how about primetime?'  I said, 'that will never work.'  No, no, we want to put you on at 10:00.  We have done focus groups.  People will love you at 10:00.  Look at these studies showing Jay's chin at 10:00.  People will go crazy."

Leno said he was doubtful it would work, even though NBC assured him that while he may not initially do well in the ratings against competitors like "CSI," things would pick up when other series went into reruns.

That didn't happen and Leno said that likewise Conan's show during the summer "was not doing well." So the NBC brass decided to move Leno to 11:30 p.m., he said.

"Now, where I come from, when your boss gives you a job and you don't do it well, I think we did a good job here, but we didn't' get the ratings, so you get humbled," Leno said. "I said, 'okay, I'm not crazy about doing a half hour, but okay.  What do you want to do with Conan?'"

"We'll put him on at midnight, or 12:05, keeps 'The Tonight Show"'does all that, he gets the whole hour," Leno continued.  " I said, okay.  You think Conan will go for that?  Yes, yes.  (laughter)  Almost guarantee you.  I said okay.  Shake hands, that's it.  I don't have a manager, I don't have an agent, that's my handshake deal."

Leno added that he later found out through the media that Conan was not thrilled with the idea and NBC offered him "The Tonight Show" back if Conan decided to leave and Leno said he agreed.

In the end, Leno said, he has no hard feelings toward Conan.

"But through all of this – through all of this, Conan O'Brien has been a gentleman," Leno told his audience. "He's a good guy.  I have no animosity towards him."

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. heresjohnny

    I've been enjoying Lettermen since Jay was moved . I tried Conan but was put off by whar seemed to me to be high school humor...Conan sort of mocks 'being funny' and has no stand-up experience. As others have said, Leno is club act sort of show, and Conan fits very well into the late night cable model. Neither is prime time material, as we can see. When Jay returns, I will have to decide between Jay and Dave, but Conan isn't even in the running. Where were his legion of fans when his ratings plummeted on the Tonight show? Probably online or watching cable, where Conan should be!

    January 21, 2010 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  2. Glenn May

    For the record my favorite is Letterman, then Conan then Leno. They are all great talents and each one has had to balance his own vision with political sacrifices along the way. For the last two years I have been consistantly falling asleep before late night TV starts. Actually I have to rally just to make it through Chelsea Lately. I am approaching 60 years now and unless I get a little help from my friends (which is not without consequence) no way will I make it though the opening monologue. There are a lot of old farts like me that are hoping FOX picks up Conan and puts him in the same time slot Jay Leno is leaving.

    January 21, 2010 at 11:01 am | Report abuse |
  3. let's be real

    shirley, do us all a favor and proofread your comments.

    Leno did the right thing by speaking up. It was well spoken, I might add.

    January 20, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Lisa Rogalski

    I'm more of a Letterman fan myself, but I was impressed by Jay Leno coming to Michigan and putting on free shows for the unemployed workers here. Hard to feel sorry for someone like Conan who cries because he's going to get a $40 million severence package - boo hoo. Have some dignity man.

    January 20, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. shirley

    I've never watch either of the shows, they are not funny who write the
    material .So what all the fighting about taken them both off,and do us
    all a favor.

    January 20, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Charles

    Leno is a veteran, a solid professional who should never have been removed from the Tonight Show. He held the course, stomped Letterman with better talent, better content. The NBC Execs tainted the Tonight Show legacy.

    The only people that should be replaced are the band of Exec/nuckleheads who made and executed the changes to the late night line up. Ironically, these same nuckleheads are likely to land their bonus this year, regardless of where Jay and Conan land in the near future.

    Food for thought, I wonder how much worse these Execs could make it for the late night line up? Give it a little while, lets wait and see.

    January 20, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. LA Area Teacher

    Best late night talk show host is Craig Ferguson. Funny personality, funny jokes (at least as good as the other guys, and it is a 5-nights a week gig), and the best interviews of them all. I'm part of the younger demographics who is supposed to like Conan O'Brien, but maybe I don't appreciate his type of humor because it seems skewed to junior high boys' jokes–I get enough of those lame efforts from my students. This story is really about executive mismanagement, not the talent or stars.

    To those lecturing the readers about other more serious problems in the world and how we shouldn't be interested in these "entertainment" stories–I have one word: balance. It is possible to care about more than one story/issue in a day, a week, a year. Obviously YOU clicked on the link and read the story too, AND took the time to write a comment.

    January 20, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  8. JoeD

    NBC made promises to both Leno and Conan that they couldn't keep. They wanted to keep them both, then got stuck when the ratings weren't there – for both of them. Conan isn't Carson or Leno, but his talent would fly at FOX.

    January 20, 2010 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  9. Glenn Kozak

    There will NEVER be another Johnny Carson. Jay Leno did a good job for 17 years, and deserves to get "Tonight Show" back.

    Baby boomers like me cannot relate to Conan. He acts too childish! Letterman's Top-10 is the only thing funny on his show.

    Conan will get $40M, and wind up on Fox next year. Jay will still win the ratings war!

    Now pick up your cell phone, dial 90999, and donate $10 for the poor Haitans. Late night TV is not the most important thing in the world.

    January 20, 2010 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  10. Lukas, New York, NY

    All this BS about " c'mon people, it's television, it's not important" annoys me. Of course it's important. It gives jobs to thousands of people, millions of people arrange their day around certain parts of TV, so let's not downplay TV to make ourselves seem more independent or smarter than we are.
    As for Conan vs. Leno vs. NBC... I don't watch either of them, but I understand rotten leadership and lack of backbone when I see it. Conan is angry and for good reason. he received no back up from his bosses even after thorough guarantees at the outside that they would stand by his side for a s long as it took to get an audience. They gave him seven months.
    Craig Ferguson meanwhile keeps up his honest and relaxed style through all this , and I like that...

    January 20, 2010 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  11. cocofan

    Leno, you have no class! You reek of desperation, you unfunny man! I hated you in 1992 and will continue to hate your yellow, lily-livered ass 'til the day I die! Whenever I turn on the tv and I see your chin, mocking me with the sheer stupidity of your uninspired jokes, lacking any semblance of personality and edge, I immediately switch to another channel. I'd rather watch NOTHING, than stay tuned for your insipid act. You put people to sleep. You cater to an audience who lived when dinosaurs roamed the earth! You are irrelevant, and you are a joke. Letterman refused the Tonight Show after you stank in the ratings, but you are willing to take it back. That's just sad, you pathetic, desperate man. I hate you!

    January 20, 2010 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  12. matt

    you'll notice, never did NBC, Jay, or Conan say, "well how about if we wedge Jay BETWEEN Conan and jimmy?". Jay could have been the man, stepped up to the plate and said "Why not put me on AFTER the tonight show – i could be raunchier". Conan could have suggested that as well. bottom line – NBC is so afraid that Jay would go to another network and kill them. problem is, the dynamic of TV is changing. it will never be the same as it was

    January 20, 2010 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
  13. Philip

    I think people are angry with Leno because he is so willing to go back on the transition agreement that gave Conan the Tonight Show. If you didn't want to do any of this, you could have said something like, "No." The guy tanks in prime time and gets rewarded for it. Sure Jay, you're only doing this to keep your production staff employed. Just like the only reason you took the Tonight Show from Letterman was to get those same people hired. You're such a selfless victim in all this. Cue the eye-rolling. Here come many more years of the tired Jay on the street bit and lame jokes told with the delivery of a used car salesman.

    January 20, 2010 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
  14. Greg

    I did like Jay before and still do, but I won't watch him back on the tonight show. I'm with Coco!

    January 20, 2010 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jessica*

    @ Chris – Hell yeah! Craig Ferguson is better than all of these others! Even Conan. I stopped watching Conan to watch Craigy!

    Since when is Leno "sophisticated"? Seriously? He's not even funny at all. The way he delivers his lines is kinda...lame. Like that real cheesy car salesman who thinks he's really funny but he's not...You know the one with the bow tie?

    Anyway – either way it goes, I still think NBC is retarded. It doesn't make sense to take your number 1 guy and tell him "So by the way, we're taking away your job in 5 years now matter how well you do and putting in someone else because we're greedy and don't want him to go anywhere else."

    Greed only gets you so far. Then it blows up in your face.

    January 19, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Report abuse |
  16. let's be honest...

    He doesn't sound like the victim in his 2004 retirement announcement, he sounds more like a hypocrite.
    Jay's 2004 Announcement – watch more funny videos

    January 19, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  17. MIkey

    Jay Leno is really not that funny. It's like an old, tired nightclub act.

    When he says that NBC basically forced his hand 5 years ago, i don't buy it. He'd been number one for 12 years. WHich means he had some clout and control over the situation. If he had an issue, he shuold have just said no and walked.

    I have no pity for someone who nicely agrees to his own demise. Then complains about it later.

    January 19, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  18. flugel76

    This is simply a PR stunt designed to generate some sympathy for Jay with simple-minded viewers who aren't even considering what is being done. Jay had his chance, and he blew it. And he will blow it once he's back at 11:35.

    January 19, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  19. CiCi

    @ vette girl

    I agree...that was the point I was trying to make to my friend. After knocking out Jay...Conan was the one stabbed in the back??? Jay's a nice guy. Kimmel and some viewers are making him the whipping boy. We LOVE YA JAY!

    January 19, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  20. James

    Jay is showing some class here. I pity a nation where a generation of viewers who back finger pointing, name calling hosts (Conan and Kimmel) have nothing better to do than to go on the internet and attack people they've never met.

    January 19, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Randall R.

    The problem here is NBC's know-nothing executives have hit upon the brilliant concept of shuffling what works until it stops working then trying to fix what was never broken until they destroy it for good. It's sort of like a vintage Porsche that runs good and is a pleasure to drive but burns a little oil. Tear it down, massage the parts, spend a ton of money, and when it's back together, if it ever is, it might not run as well as it did before. The elegant balance of smoothly oprating parts makng up the whole of a number one sucessful ride has been disturbed and may never achieve that perfect balance again. Never mess with sucess. A lesson that NBC's aademics and intellectuals never learn. Put them on the playground and you will find them all on the same end of the teeter totter trying to find a way to improve it.

    January 19, 2010 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  22. P Miranda Jhett

    This nonsense is a respite from the on going tragedy of Haiti...the pleading for money has been overwhelming...its becoming annoying, to say the least. Let the governments with the deep pockets tend to this issue...

    January 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  23. PJ

    I have watched the Tonight Show for years. Carson was the man, but Leno came in and did a great job. I have not watched the show once since Conan came on. Conan may be a great guy but he is not entertaining to me. I look forward to Jay and the Tonight Show again.

    January 19, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  24. vette gal

    Poor, poor Conan. Going to walk away with 40 million and people feel sorry for him?

    At least Jay has been intelligent about this instead of writing an open letter to "people of earth". That's just the kind of verbage that makes me dislike Conan. He's too far off the wall, not funny (but obviously thinks he is since he cracks up at his own jokes).

    Conan wanted the Tonight Show and forced NBC to give it to him at a certain time, ousting Jay. At that time, he didn't care about anyone but himself and he still doesn't. He had 4 months to bump up his ratings before Leno's new show came on as a lead in to his, but he couldn't do it, so to blame Leno's show for not bringing him viewer is nuts. I always watched Leno on the Tonight Show, but didn't watch the show that led in to his. People will switch channels to watch the shows they want. Conan is full of nothing but excuses as to why he didn't have ratings. Maybe he should put the blame where it belongs.....himself and his so called talent!

    January 19, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  25. John

    I like Jay and Conan. Really funny people, great to watch them every night. Though I think Jay Leno really deserves to be back at the Tonight Show, because he's been NBC's Tonight Show man who had the highest ratings for 17 years. It was much better when Jay Leno had the Tonight Show and Conan had Late Night before this mess, they were much funnier when they held those positions. NBC screwed up, it should have kept on being Jay for TS and Conan for LN. I also saw the speech. Both hosts are great though, it's just business, and ratings can cause executives to be experimental.

    January 19, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  26. balddude

    Conan, take the 40 million from NBC and run. Take your staff people with you to FOX. You will have a longer run than Leno.

    January 19, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Tokyo Pete Johnson

    What's up with everybody making Jay Leno the "bad guy" in this debacle. Remember, Leno had the #1 late night TV talk show until he agreed to be summarily demoted to a crazy prime-time, nightly variety show experiment.

    For most of us older "baby-boomers," Conan's humor is more college "frat-boy" stuff than good solid "PG" nightclub stand-up humor. TV programing is a business. If you don't deliver the goods and bring it to the satisfaction of a viewing audience, you should be fired. Conan couldn't and didn't deliver the viewership for the "Tonight Show's" time slot, plain & simply.

    And frankly, Conan was simply not that funny in a time slot where most of the previous hosts had solid nightclub/Las Vegas experience. I think the TV audience at 11:35 p.m. is a little more sophisticated than Conan's comedic delivery & maturity.


    Tokyo Pete

    January 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  28. Thomas Kundi

    Seriously the only thing worse than people paying attention to rich people and how many millions they will get to sustain their ego, is CNN continuing to publish a story about them.

    January 19, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Rex

    C'mon folks. Its television. Not important.

    January 19, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Chris

    I watched Jay make this speech last night – I think he has been a perfect gentleman in NOT back-biting Conan – and I will continue to watch Jay whereever he lands. Conan drives me crazy – he's very grating on my nerves, and I refuse to watch him.....same thing with Letterman (I can't stand him either). The only other one I watch is Craig Ferguson (love him!)

    I think NBC execs should get their heads out of their butts!

    January 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |

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