Despite all Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" digs at NBC, the network's chief says Leno is "one of the nicest people that you will ever meet" and that he hopes he will return to the network often, "à la Bob Hope."
NBC has learned from its disastrous 2009 attempt to replace Leno with Conan O'Brien on "The Tonight Show." This time, the network seems to be successfully orchestrating the transfer of hosting duties to Jimmy Fallon.
Network entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt (pictured with Leno in 2011) is trying to stay on friendly terms with Leno, offering him the kind of elder statesman role Hope held for years.
"I take my hat off to him," Greenblatt said at a Television Critics Association panel Saturday, adding that Leno has been nothing but nice in transition talks. "Nothing would make us happier than for him à la Bob Hope to still be a presence on the network."
He said the network has spoken with Leno about specific projects, but did not yet have anything to announce.
The Hope comparison is an interesting one because Hope didn't host a nightly show for the network, but rather a series of specials, over the decades. Leno's predecessor as "Tonight Show" host, Johnny Carson, mostly disappeared from the public eye after his retirement in 1992.
When NBC replaced Leno with O'Brien, it gave him his own nightly show at 10 p.m. When it struggled, Leno volunteered that he would be willing to take the "Tonight Show" back. In the ensuing mess, O'Brien left NBC, eventually turning up at TBS.
This time, Leno's contract will expire soon after the planned "Tonight Show" handoff in February.
Leno's ratings have only picked up since NBC announced his exit, leading some — including Leno in his monologues — to question why he is being replaced now. Greenblatt said it was to be expected that Leno's fans would "rally for him" in his last months on the air.