A defensive and cagey Jay Leno squirmed through an interview with Oprah Winfrey on Thursday, insisting he’s a “good guy” who didn’t steal the “Tonight Show” back from Conan O’Brien.
“I think it’s unfair,” said Leno of the criticism. “I wasn’t the reason. The reason was the ratings.”
Winfrey said she conducted a poll that indicated 96 percent of people support O’Brien over Leno. Leno, 59, relinquished “The Tonight Show” last May for a 10 p.m. show that was a ratings disaster. He’ll return on March 1 to the “Tonight Show,” which itself floundered under O’Brien.
Winfrey prodded the comedian on whether he felt selfish in agreeing to the late-night overhaul, which led to O’Brien’s buyout and departure.
“It was really agonizing,” said Leno, who remained somber during the interview and cracked no jokes. He said, “I would spend a lot of time just thinking about it, going, ‘I think I’m a good guy. Am I a good guy?’”
Leno didn’t hold back about NBC’s brass: “They could not have handled it worse,” he said.
Leno also delivered a cringe-inducing quip about the network: “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.”
In the end, though, Leno had a compliment for O’Brien, with whom he hasn’t spoken since the drama began. “The key is not to be bitter, and I think Conan said it best [during his final show] when he said, Don’t be cynical,” Leno said.