“You seem to be the man everybody’s talking about,” Oprah said as she greeted Leno. Jay, wearing a strategically placed pin of an American Flag, was all sad eyes as he explained that he never wanted to give up The Tonight Show. “It broke my heart,” he said of being told he would have to give up his show.
“I did tell a white lie on the air, I said I was gonna retire.” He said that he assumed he’d go to another network. But then NBC came up with a 10 o’clock idea in the fall of 2008, and convinced Jay the show would work at that time slot. So moving to primetime was his option rather than going to another Network. “I’m comfortable here. I’m not someone who jumps around,” he said.
Was it against his better judgment to do the primetime show? He said, “Well I choose to do it, so I take full responsibility.” He said that doing The Tonight Show was the most wonderful time of his life.
Jay said it was a “calculated effort” for other networks to not send their guests on his show, so it was “way more difficult” to be on at 10 p.m. “It’s hard to get those stars.” But he had lots of the movie stars – Jennifer Garner, for instance.
“Why do you think the show failed,” asked Oprah. “Because it was basically a late night talk show at 10 o’clock.” Was his ego bruised by dropping numbers? “I felt bad for everybody on the show and I felt bad for our affiliates.”
“America has taken sides and a lot of people are not on your side. Because they think you’ve been selfish.” “Well it all comes down to numbers in show business. This is almost the perfect storm of bad things happening. We had two hit shows that were at number one. You move them both to another situation. What are the odds that both would do extremely poorly? If Conan’s numbers had been a little bit higher… NBC came to me and said our shows were both down, we have a plan, we wanna keep you both…”
Why didn’t Jay just leave after he was fired twice? “My show was not winning its time period. That’s a valid reason to fire me.”
Of the incident with Kimmel on his show he admitted, “I had Jimmy Kimmel on my show and yea, I got sucker punched.” Then he added, “It’s my show, I could have edited it. But I didn’t.”
Has Leno talked to Conan since all of this? No. “It didn’t seem appropriate.”
Were any of the things Conan said about him hurtful? “No, they were jokes so it’s okay.”
In the privacy of his own thoughts, does he ever feel hurt? “The odd thing is, its’ all in your conscience. If you think you played a role in it somehow you have a guilty conscience and feel bad.”
“They only asked me after Conan turned down moving it back half an hour. I was ready to do a half hour.”
“So no part of you thought enough already?” asked Oprah. “No. If you’re a gun fighter, you want to die in the street.”
“There is always someone waiting in the wings in this business, to take your job. If you don’t have the numbers,” Leno said. Oprah asked him how he’ll rebuild the audience. “By doing the work,” he said. But with Leno now disliked by so many, I don’t think he’ll ever be number 1 again.
“I thought that was beneath you actually,” Oprah said about Leno’s joke about Letterman’s marriage.
“Did your gut ever tell you to say ‘no’ to NBC’s offer?” asked Oprah. “No,” Leno said. He went on to insult NBC saying they couldn’t have done a worse job than if they’d come inside and shot everyone.
Did he watch Conan’s final show? “Yea. Great show. Good comic.”
On going back he says he has to “not be bitter.” Was he embarrassed by how this all went down? “Yea, hugely embarrassed.”
“I always felt I was doing the right thing,” he confessed. In his mind, he seems to see he’s totally fine and it’s not personal, just business. But he seems very selfish. “Did you ever ask yourself ‘am I being selfish’? asked Oprah. “I don’t think so. I like the job. I like all that goes with it. I fight for the people who work here. Is that selfish?” Leno said.
“Do you think you can be number one again?” asked Oprah. “I don’t know, you work hard and you try.”
Jay will be back on on The Tonight Show on March 1st 2010. David Letterman is on tonight.