Talking at length for the first time about LateNightCrisis 2010, Leno said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey he was "devastated" when Jeff Zucker asked him to agree to give up "The Tonight Show" six years ago.
He also says he was "sucker punched" by Jimmy Kimmel’s blistering appearance on "The Tonight Show" and predicts O’Brien will do well somewhere else.
“Anything they did would have been better than this. Anything!” Leno said the interview airing Thursday. A transcript of the interview wasn’t immediately available, but the New York Times and other outlets have starting posting reports from the show, which has already aired in Chicago.
“Anything they did. If they’d come in and shot everybody, I mean, it would have been people murdered, but at least it would have been a two-day story," Leno added. "Yes, NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 onward.”
Leno also maintains that NBC’s decision to dump Conan O'Brien was "all about the numbers" and kept up the network’s line that "Tonight" had, in just seven months, become a ratings and profit disaster (even though O’Brien ended his run No. 1 among adults 18-49).
“If you look at where the ratings were, it was already destructive to the franchise," Leno said, responding to O’Brien’s "people of Earth" letter, in which he said he wouldn’t move to 12:05 a.m.
Once "The Jay Leno Show" had failed, why didn’t Leno simply retire after 17 years on the job and let O’Brien keep his gig?
“If you’re a gunfighter you’d like to die in the street,” he said.
Leno said the whole brouhaha has been "hugely embarrassing.” The Times printed a lengthy quote from Leno in which he tries to work out his feelings about the matter:
“You know, I always thought that you’re doing the right thing. You know, how can you do the right thing and just have it go so wrong? Maybe I’m not doing the right thing, I would say. Maybe I’m doing something wrong–this many people are angry and upset over a television show. I mean, I had a show, my show got canceled. They weren’t happy with the other guy’s show. They said, we want you to go back. I said OK. And this seemed to make a lot of people really upset. And I go, well, who wouldn’t take that job, though? Who wouldn’t do that? And it was really agonizing. And I would spend a lot of time just thinking about it, going, I think I’m a good guy; am I not a good guy? Am I–maybe I’m just one of those guys who thinks I see everything with the rose-colored glasses and the world is falling around you. Yeah, it was real agonizing.”
According to the Times, Leno said he believes both he and O’Brien were treated poorly by NBC. He also said he has no ill will toward Coco.
“Great performer and good comic and a good guy. There’s no–no animosity there,” Leno said.
The comic also predicted O’Brien "will have a successful show on Fox or somewhere else. And then we will all compete again and may the best man win.”