"Well, I did tell a white lie on the air. I said, 'I'm going to retire.' It was just maybe easier that way."
Easier, in part, he said, because of the devastation that came with losing The Tonight Show in the first place.
"It broke my heart. It really did. I was devastated," Leno said of his being forced out. "This was the job that I had always wanted, and this was the only job that ever mattered in show business—to me. It's the job every comic aspires to. It was just like, why?"
Unfortunately, Leno apparently isn't one for aha moments and didn't quite make the connection that O'Brien felt the same way when the late-night franchise was snatched away from him—albeit after seven months, not 17 years.
"If the numbers had been there, they wouldn't have asked me," Leno said, dodging the question of whether he felt he had taken Conan's dream away.
"And they only asked me after Conan turned down moving it back half an hour."
He further attempted to defend his actions by adding that NBC execs, a trustworthy bunch of guys if ever there was one, told him that they were "75 percent" certain Conan would go for the pushed-back and shortened time slot, though, as we now know, he didn't exactly bother to call and confirm the guesstimate.
A valiant effort in dodging, to be sure, but Oprah's questions will not go unanswered.
"No part of you thought, 'Enough already. I've done it,' " she pressed.
"You know, if you're a gunfighter, you like to die in the street," he replied. We'll take that as a "no."
Of course, Jay's ego is not totally impenetrable.
"You fired me twice. How valuable can I be?" was his response to NBC's renewed courtship of his late-night services.
"OK, stop right there," Oprah revved up. "Why didn't you then just say, 'You fired me twice. I'm out of here, guys?' Because that seems like the ultimate in disrespect to me."
Leno countered that the fact that his show was not winning its time slot was a good enough reason as any to (involuntarily) pack his bags.
Still, while Oprah may not exactly be on Team CoCo, even more surprisingly, she's not exactly not on Team Letterman—at least not judging by her critique of a recent Leno low blow.