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Leno on Letterman, Fame … and Kimmel vs. Conan

On the eve of his final “Tonight Show,” Jay gives a candid, personal interview.

Jay Leno has some mixed words about his relationship with his longtime competitor David Letterman — and some confident remarks about his upcoming primetime talk show.

In an interview published this morning on GQ’s website, Leno talked candidly about Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and his chances of drumming up ratings five times a week in the 10 p.m. slot on NBC.

“This new show is not something that five years ago I would’ve thought would work,” Leno said. “Is this show going to blow ‘CSI: Miami’ off the air? No. But when everything else is in reruns, we’ll be topical. We’ll be talking about what’s going on right now. And that might help us win.”

Leno also spoke well of his “Tonight Show” successor  O’Brien, noting that he wanted to ensure not to repeat the public debacle that occurred when Leno took over the show from Johnny Carson. He added that Jimmy Kimmel, whom Leno described as a good friend, could challenge O’Brien in the ratings if ABC moved “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to 11:30 p.m.

“Kimmel’s really good,” he said.  “Jimmy has a good Everyman quality that I think people like. Very accessible, easy to talk to. I think he’s a real contender, yeah.”

Of Letterman, Leno said, “I owe a lot to Dave. When he came out here [to Los Angeles in the ’70s, to do stand-up], we both learned a lot from each other.”

However, the “Tonight Show” also pointed out that Letterman makes more “way more” money — despite Leno’s being number one – and disputed Letterman’s reputation for appealing to younger audiences.

“We’ve had the young demo for 14 years. We always win 18 to 35. But we also win 35 to 60 or whatever it is. They always assume one show is hipper than the other, but it’s not really true.”

Leno also confirmed that Letterman did not reply to a kind letter that he sent him after his open-heart surgery.

“I don’t know if he ever got it,” said Leno. “He might not ever have gotten it. A middling might’ve said, ‘I don’t want to show this to Dave. It’ll upset him,’ and thrown it away, so I don’t know.”

Admitting that he has not talked to Letterman since, he said: “[Letterman is] one of the funniest guys ever. I like him tremendously … That is my greatest regret, that ‘The Tonight Show’ came between us,” Leno said.

“That’s why I think this new show is starting clear and free.”