Jan 28, 2010
Jay Leno on 'Oprah': Admits to lying, ridicules Conan's 'Tonight Show': This is damage control?
by Ken Tucker
In a fascinating display of self-pity and hubris, Jay Leno went on Oprah today and really let loose: He said that the plan to return him to The Tonight Show was “a huge mess,” that he’d been “sucker-punched” by Jimmy Kimmel, that he’d lied when he told the public in 2004 he would retire when he left The Tonight Show in 2009, and that there’s “a lot of damage control that has to be done now.” Believe me: There’ll be even more to be done after this Oprah interview.
Jay Leno admitted to Oprah Winfrey that “I told a white lie on the air” when he said in 2004 he’d retire after he left the Tonight Show in 2009. “It was just maybe easier that way.” He said he “assumed” he’d just get a job at another network.
Oprah observed: “Conan said he thought it would be destructive to the franchise” for him to agree to the plan for The Tonight Show appear at 12:05, after an 11:35 Leno show. “Well, if you look at where [Conan's Tonight Show] ratings were” — and here he paused for comic-sarcastic effect — “it was already destructive to the franchise… This was the first time in the 60-year history of The Tonight Show that The Tonight Show would have lost money.” Leno also said, “I hope Conan gets a job somewhere.” Whatta competitor, that Jay!
There were some fascinating exchanges between Oprah and Jay, who sounded as though he thought Winfrey was going to be more sympathetic than she proved to be. Winfrey said, “David Letterman called you, I think, the ‘Big Jaw’ Leno… and you hit back by talking about his infidelity.” Leno said, “Well, I did a joke about that, yes.” ”Even the audience went, ‘Ooo!’” noted Winfrey. ”But it was a good joke,” squeaked Leno. “Did you laugh when you heard it?”
“No,” said Oprah firmly, “I did not. I did not laugh. You know what, I thought that was beneath you.” Leno tried to defend himself. “But how many jokes like that have I done? I did one joke in the middle of the week and I never did another one. I had a cheap shot thrown at me, I threw one cheap shot back and I moved on.” Oprah asked, “So you thought one cheap shot deserves another?” Leno said, “Yeah, it’s OK.” Then Oprah asked, “Do you feel you’re being unfairly portrayed by the media?” Leno said, “Yeah, I think so.”
Amazing figure: A poll conducted on Oprah.com found that 96% of Winfrey’s audience was on Conan’s side in this “mess.”
Leno continues to make much of the idea that he didn’t turn down the 10 p.m. Jay Leno Show offer because he didn’t want to put his staff out of work: “You say to the 170 people who work here, ‘Listen, I don’t want to get my reputation ruined, I don’t want anyone talking bad about me. I’ve got enough money. You people can all fend for yourself.’ That’s… the selfish thing to do.” Yet when Winfrey brought up the number of people who were put out of work on the 10 p.m. scripted shows that were either cancelled or never put into production by NBC because the Leno Show took up a prime-time slot five nights a week, he said feebly, “I wasn’t thinking about that at the time.” Come on. This was a point being brought up in the media almost as soon as the Leno Show was announced.
One thing that didn’t ring true, or at least make sense, as we’ve all heard it: Leno said, “They only offered [The Tonight Show] to me after Conan had turned down [the 12:05 offer].” Really? Seems like O’Brien decided to leave NBC after he’d been told NBC planned to move Jay to 11:35, from most reports.
There was a darkly humorous moment when Oprah asked him if he thought NBC could have handled this better. “Anything they did would have been better than this… If they had come in and shot everybody, it would have been ‘Oh, people were murdered,’ but at least it would have been a two-day story. NBC could not have handled it worse. From 2004 onward, this whole thing was a huge mess.”
When Jimmy Kimmel came on the Leno Show Jan. 14 and used that “10 @ 10? segment to blast Leno, Jay told Winfrey he felt “sucker-punched.” He said he could have “edited it” out, but “when you get sucker-punched, you get right back up again. You don’t whine or complain.”
Still, Leno did his share of whining on Oprah. “It was really agonizing. I would spend a lot of time just thinking about it, going, ‘I think I’m a good guy. Am I a good guy?’”