Jay Leno got the full Oprah treatment yesterday, and for the once and future host of “The Tonight Show,” it could not have come at a better time. With the fires still smoldering from the wreckage of NBC’s late night schedule and a few million viewers, fans, bystanders – and even Winfrey herself at moments yesterday – continuing to wonder whether Leno had a role in the demolition, he told his side of this complicated story yesterday.
He also said there’s "a lot of damage control to be done" before returning to late night in March. Indeed, there is, Jay. Indeed there is.
With leg crossed, and tie loosened, Leno wasn’t exactly in a confessional mood, but he was in an expansive one, and occasionally a blunt one, too. He needed to be.
Winfrey wondered if he was "selfish," or whether he "felt any personal responsibility" for Conan O'Brien's departure, or if he should NOT have gone back to "Tonight," or if he "stole Conan's dream."
While he essentially said "no" to each of those, he also insisted that “I felt really bad for Conan. I think it's unfair, but TV is not fair. I thought it was unfair for me."
He added,” nowhere in my wildest dreams did I expect them [NBC] to ask me to go back" to 11:35, then "Tonight." He figured "The Jay Leno Show" (ending Feb. 9) would get cut back to two or three times a week, but the cancellation "was an affiliate decision."
NBC got the most memorable line, or uppercut: "Anything they did would have been better than this. Anything. Anything. If they'd come in and shot everybody – I mean, ‘people were murdered.’ It would have been a two-day story."
"NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 on. This whole thing was a huge huge mess."
Winfrey naturally wondered (as you might have): Then why stay? This is the company (still run by essentially the same bosses) who fired him “twice.” In a rare (for Leno) moment of emotional candor, he even said early in the interview that when NBC chief Jeff Zucker first told him back in 2004 that he was going to be replaced by O’Brien in 2009, “it broke my heart. It really did. I was devastated. This is the job that I always wanted and it was the only job that ever mattered in show business.” But he stayed because he was comfortable, and wanted to protect the jobs of 170 staffers. Still, decision to move back to "Tonight" was "agonizing...I THINK I’m good guy."
Oprah circled back. But why not just quit? Make NBC take care of his staff, give him and them a proper financial farefel, and just…move…on.
In the most interesting exchange, a Freudian one perhaps, he said:
"If you're a gunfighter, you want to die in the street."