Not Even Oprah Can Stop America From Hating Jay

Leno opens up about Tonight Show mess, blames Conan's numbers for switch, says he was forced to retire and defends Letterman crack

By Gina Serpe Jan 28, 2010 9:05 PMTags

It's a familiar formula.

National scandal erupts, guilty party begins requisite if slightly disingenuous national tour of apology and, if he/she is really lucky (or really controversial), he/she ends up on Oprah Winfrey's couch.

But it takes a special kind of guy to elicit the acknowledgment from the otherwise Zen talk queen that not only does America pretty much hate you, but you've done the unthinkable: namely, disappointed Oprah herself.

Well, folks, today Jay Leno was that guy.

"America has taken sides," Oprah said, jumping right to the point and possibly giving an explanation as to why the interview was filmed sans audience.

"And a lot of people are not on your side. And they're not on your side because they think that you have been selfish in this. Do you see in any way how you've been selfish? They think that you took the job away from Conan."

"It all comes down to numbers in show business," Leno began. "This is almost the perfect storm of bad things happening. You have two hit shows—Tonight Show, No. 1 and Conan, No. 1. You move them both to another situation. And what are the odds that both would do extremely poorly?

"If Conan's numbers had been a little bit higher, it wouldn't even be an issue," Leno went on, albeit while failing to acknowledge the debilitating ripple effect his lead-in had on his onetime successor. "But in business, there's always somebody waiting in the wings. Being me."

The wing waiting might have been a long time coming, but make no mistake, it was always the plan. Despite what Leno told viewers back in 2004.

"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.

"Talking about fine balance, do you think your fellow comedians lost that balance and maybe you did too, because David Letterman called you, I think, the 'big jawed' Leno who should just walk away, and you hit back by talking about his infidelity?" she asked.

"Well, I did a joke about that, yes."

"Even the audience went, 'Ooooh!' " Oprah interrupted.

"But it was a good joke," Leno said. "Did you laugh when you heard it?"

"No, I did not. I did not laugh. You know what, I thought that was beneath you, actually."

Ouch. But that didn't stop Leno from trying to defend the crack while at the same time admitting that his competitors' jabs didn't exactly bounce right off him.

"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."

When Oprah asked whether he thought one cheap shot deserved another, he answered quickly: "Yeah, it's OK."

"I got sucker punched," he went on, referring to Jimmy Kimmel's infamous turn on his 10@10 segment. "It's my show. I could have edited it. But I said, 'No, no, put it out there.' I walked into it."

Leno said that while he expected the topic to come up, he wasn't ready for the force or bite with which Kimmel drove his point home.

"I didn't. But when you get sucker punched, you just get right back up again. You don't whine or complain—'Oh, I'm going to take that out, he said something bad about me.' That's all right."

It had better be. While Letterman is in repeats this week, we get the distinct impression that, come Monday, there'll be plenty more where that came from.

(Originally published Jan. 28, 2010, at 11:25 a.m. PT)


There's more where this came from, too. Catch up on all the late-night mudslinging right here.