It's the late-night controversy that's dividing Americans—Team Conan or Team Jay?
Comedian Jay Leno, the host of The Tonight Show, says the shake-up started in 2004 when NBC executives asked him to give up his number one–rated show to make room for a new host—Conan O'Brien. The switchover, they said, would happen in five years.
Jay told his fans he was retiring, and in May 2009, he passed the torch to Conan as planned. Then, in an unprecedented move, NBC decided to keep Jay on the network and created The Jay Leno Show, which aired in a coveted primetime slot, five nights a week.
A few months later, Jay and Conan came back on the air in their new roles. But, after a strong start, ratings for both shows began to plummet and rumors swirled that The Jay Leno Show would be canceled.
Instead of canceling Jay's show outright, NBC came up with a new plan. They asked Jay to cut his show to 30 minutes and move to the 11:35 p.m. time slot, which would push The Tonight Show back to 12:05 a.m.
Jay accepted the offer, but Conan turned down the deal and took a $45 million buyout for himself and his staff.
On Friday, January 22, Conan hosted his final episode and said goodbye. "Walking away from The Tonight Show is the hardest thing I have ever had to do," he said. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."
On March 1, 2010, Jay will return to NBC as the host of The Tonight Show.
Oprah: So let's go back to five years ago when it was first announced to us, the public, that you were going to be leaving The Tonight Show. How did that come about?
Jay: I was in my office, and one of the executives came and said: "Listen, Conan's getting offers from the other networks. We don't want to lose him. We want to give him the show, and we're asking you to leave," essentially. And that was pretty shocking.
Oprah: This is in 2004. Had there been a prior discussion that, at some point, you would hand the show over to Conan?
Jay: No. ... I assumed that as long as you're keeping something number one, you remain number one. And, then when you start to slip or [there are] indications that you're slipping, that's when you step down.
Oprah: When they came into your office—"they," the NBC executives—came into your office, your show is number one in nighttime, and tell you that you're going to be moving out in five years, what is your first reaction to that?
Jay: It broke my heart. It really did. I was devastated. This is the job I had always wanted, and it was the only job that ever mattered in show business to me. It's the job every comic aspires to. And it was just like: "What? Why? What is it?" "Well, we're getting pressure here, and Conan's people want to make this announcement and to make sure you do leave, we want to announce it right now, you know, prior to the five years." And I said, "Can't we at least wait?" As I said the other night on my show, couldn't you wait until I'm number two and then say, "Okay, you dropped to number two."
Oprah: So, in your mind, this happened or that move happened because Conan wanted that spot?
Jay: Yeah. ... Well, what happened was Conan's contract was up, and ABC, I think, and some other networks were making overtures.
Oprah: To Conan.
Jay: And NBC didn't want to lose him.
Oprah: So they asked you to move out to make room for Conan and promised Conan The Tonight Show spot even though your show was number one at the time. ... So that broke your heart?
Jay: Yeah, it really did. I mean, I was devastated. I'm not a person who carries my emotion on the sleeve. But you know something? I'm happy with what I had. It was a tremendous success up to that point. [I thought], "I'm going to do the best I can to keep it number one for the next five years."
Oprah: At the end of that five-year period, 2009, what were you going to do?
Jay: Well, I did tell a white lie on the air. I said, "I'm going to retire." It just made it easier that way. But I assumed I would find a job in show business somewhere if I kept The Tonight Show number one.
Oprah: Did you think you'd go to another network?
Jay: I assumed that's what would happen, yes.
Oprah: And so at what point did the NBC executives come to you and say, "We want you to do your show in prime time"?
Jay: Well, the fly in the ointment was, "Uh-oh, we were number one right up until the day we left." In fact, they had me leave seven months early, before my contract was up, because this would preclude me from going somewhere. Plus, I have 175 people that work for me, and so I thought, "Well, the best way to keep things smooth was NBC came up with this idea."
Oprah: When did they come up with the 10 p.m. idea?
Jay: I guess it was in the fall of 2008. And they had the charts and the graphs, "Well, you see, people would love to see you at this time." They had all these things about why it might work at 10 p.m. And I said: "Well, can I keep my same staff? Can we maybe take a month and a half off or so, and then bring everybody back and [make] a smooth transition?" And they said, "Yeah, we can do that." And I said, "Okay, let's try it."
Oprah: So this was your option: Moving to primetime rather than going through looking for another job at another network.
Jay: Well, to go to another network, boy, it's a lot of work. I mean, you don't know where you're going. You don't know who you're dealing with. I've been at this network since 1984 in one form or another. I know the lighting guys. I know what lighting guys I want. I know the makeup people. I just know it. I'm comfortable here. I'm not someone who jumps around, you know?
Oprah: Did you not feel disrespected by the NBC executives?
Jay: Oh yes, I most certainly did.
Oprah: So was it against your better judgment to do the primetime show?
Jay: Well, I chose to do it, so I take full responsibility.
Oprah: Did you do it because—is there a part of you that finds it hard to say goodbye to television?
Jay: I did it because it's an interesting challenge.
Oprah: How did you feel as the date was approaching for you to say your final goodbye on The Tonight Show?
Jay: It was difficult. You know, paradise is the ability to know you're in it before you're cast out of it, and that's the way I look at life. It's like being married. I go: "Oh, that girl's cute. Oh boy. Oh no. That would be trouble." So I go home, and I see my wife and I go: "Okay. I know what paradise is, okay? And I'm living in it." And it's the same thing with this. Every day, coming to work here was paradise. It's a wonderful staff—great people to work with. It was a lot of fun, and the days just rolled by. It wasn't one of these things where: "Oh, this is horrible. I'm nervous. I hate it." It was just the most wonderful experience of my life.
Oprah: Did you think that Conan had what it took to take over The Tonight Show?
Jay: Yeah, I think he did. He followed me successfully for 16 years and was number one, and we were number one and it was a good team. I mean, even though that situation happened in 2004, Conan and I talked, and this was a network decision. This is what the network wanted.
Oprah: Were you and Conan friends?
Jay: Oh yes, very much so.
Oprah: So you bore no hard feelings toward him.
Jay: No, not at all.
Oprah: Even though he was going to be taking over your spot.
Jay: No, not at all, because I took the spot over from someone as well. I mean, he was my last guest. I wished him luck, and I asked the audience to please watch and tune in.
Oprah: And meant well by it.
Jay: Oh, very much so.
Oprah: Going to the primetime show, did that sort of make up for losing The Tonight Show?
Jay: Yes, in a way it did. There's nothing like that. I mean, you're going into uncharted territory, essentially. It's a lot more competitive. When you're on late night, I know I'm against Dave every night, and I know if he has Oprah on that night, ... I'm in trouble. But if I know he's got so and so, I know I'm okay, so we could book against that. To try and book against the CSI "evil twin" episode, that's going to be very hard to do.
Oprah: And was it true—I had heard this—that there were other networks who wanted you to fail and, therefore, weren't allowing their people [on your show]?
Jay: Well, of course they always want you to fail. The unusual thing was they actually boycotted us, and they actually said that in the trades. And it was a calculated effort to keep their guests off our show. I get that. That's fine. That's not an excuse for why the show failed. It's just another level of competition that did not exist.
Oprah: So it made it more difficult to get guests.
Jay: Oh, way more difficult. Oh yeah, "Please welcome the animals from the San Diego Zoo, ladies and gentlemen." It's hard to get those stars.
Oprah: Why do you think the show failed?
Jay: Well, I think the show failed because it was basically a late-night talk show at 10 p.m. You're competing against dramas that [cost] $3 [million] to $6 million an episode.
Oprah: When the numbers start to drop, was your ego bruised by that? Because you're used to being number one.
Jay: No, I wouldn't say my ego was bruised. I felt bad for everybody on the show, and I felt bad for our affiliates. A couple of weeks ago, I called the head of the affiliate board—they're the ones that canceled us—and I said: "I'm sorry I let you guys down. You guys supported us. You went along with the decision. I'm sorry our show wasn't successful for you."
Oprah: Because if it had worked, it would have saved millions of dollars.
Jay: Yes, actually, the odd thing is, it was making money for the network. It wasn't making money for the affiliates.
Oprah: The other side of that, many people say that you going into primetime five nights a week took away thousands of jobs from other people who would have been working on dramas.
Jay: I've got to admit, that was not something I even realized until we went on the air, but they're not wrong. I have to admit that one did catch me. We were on the air when I realized, "Wow."
Oprah: Do you think you weren't given enough time to build an audience?
Jay: No, I was given enough time. You know, I got it. I'm a big boy. It didn't work. It's a TV show that got canceled. I'm actually surprised that this got this much attention. And it made me laugh when I would open the paper, and for the last six months, I've been in the paper every day.
Oprah: Well, part of the reason I think that you're on there is because—and it's so fascinating to me—that America has taken sides, and a lot of people are not on your side.
Jay: Yes, I understand that.
Oprah: And they're not on your side because they think that you have been selfish in this. Do you see in any way how you've been selfish? They think that you took the job away from Conan.
Jay: Well, it all comes down to numbers in show business. If you're getting ratings...I mean, think of this. This is almost the perfect storm of bad things happening. You have two hit shows—The Tonight Show, number one, and Conan, number one. You move them both to another situation, and what are the odds that both would do extremely poorly? Now if Conan's numbers had been a little bit higher, it wouldn't even be an issue, but in show business, there's always somebody waiting in the wings.
Jay: I never expected this to happen. People think you're behind the scenes pulling strings. There are no strings to pull. I have a show that's been canceled, so why would I have any power to go, "Oh, I want that." What happened was NBC came to me and they said: "Look, your show was down 14 percent. Conan's show was down 49 percent. We have a plan. We want to keep you. " Because I asked. I said, "Can I be released from my contract?" And they said no.
Oprah: This is your contract on the primetime show. When did you ask that, Jay?
Jay: I asked maybe a day after we got canceled. And I said, "Well, can I move on?" "No, you're still a valuable asset." I said: "You fired me twice. How valuable can I be as an asset?" "Oh, no, we want to keep you." And I said, "Okay." And they said, "Here's our plan..."
Oprah: Why didn't you just say, "All right, you fired me twice. I'm out of here guys"? Because that seems like the ultimate in disrespect to me.
Jay: No, I got fired this time because my show did not perform. Makes perfect sense to me. My show was not winning its time period. That's a perfectly valid reason to go, "Pack your bags."
Oprah: So at the time they told you that, did they offer you in the same breath an opportunity to go back to The Tonight Show?
Jay: No. What they said was: "Here's our plan. We'd like you to do a half hour at 11:35 and Conan would do an hour at 12:05." And I said, "Conan keeps The Tonight Show and all the, you know, glitter and star power that goes with it?" And they said, "Yeah." And I said, "Okay." ... It would still be The Jay Leno Show, and I would still do a monologue and a comedy piece, and I thought: "Okay, I'll do a half hour at 11:30. Conan will do an hour." And I remember saying to one of the executives, "Do you think Conan will go for that?" "Oh yeah, no problem. We are 75 percent sure Conan will take this deal." I said okay, [and] shake hands. Again, I'm not a big contract guy. I shake hands. I'll do a half hour, Conan will take an hour, we'll see what happens.
Oprah: Was there any part of you that thought: "Let me think about this. Let me have a conversation with Conan. Let me see if Conan wants to take the hour"? Was there any part of you that thought: "You know what? I've already done that. Enough. Let's move on"?
Jay: Actually, it wasn't my place to call Conan and say, "They made this offer to me." And I said, "Do you think Conan will go for this?" And they said, "We'll ask him tomorrow." I said, "Okay, let me know what happens," and then the next thing you know, I guess Conan had his article in the paper and that was that.
Oprah: Yes, Conan said that he thought it would be destructive to the franchise and that if he took that spot...
Jay: Well, if you look at where the ratings were, it was already destructive to the franchise.
Oprah: But he said that he did not want to to take the hour at 12:05 a.m. because then it...
Jay: Well, there was no discussion on it. The last discussion I had was it looked like he was gonna go for it, and then he publicly said no, and by that time, it had pretty much hit the fan. Everything was all over the place, and there wasn't a lot of talking going on.
Oprah: But then it got ugly.
Oprah: Have you talked to Conan in person during all of this?
Jay: I haven't. No, I haven't.
Oprah: Did you want to pick up the phone?
Jay: Yeah, but it didn't seem appropriate.
Jay: I don't know. Maybe let things cool down and maybe we'll talk.
Oprah: Were any of the things he said about you hurtful?
Jay: They were jokes, and that's okay.
Oprah: So jokes don't hurt you?
Jay: It's what we do, you know? It's like being a fighter and saying, "When you got punched in the head, did it hurt?" "Well, yeah." But you're a fighter. That's what you do.
Oprah: So when you in the privacy of your own thoughts, your own home, you go home with Mavis at the end of the day, you didn't say, "You know, I thought that was kind of rotten," or "I thought that went a little too far."
Jay: Well, you know, the odd thing is, it's all your conscience. If you think you played a role in it somehow, then you get a guilty conscience and you feel bad. But nowhere in my wildest dreams did I think that they would ask me to go back. It just didn't seem logical.
Oprah: When they asked you to go back, did you ever at any time think, "Well, if I go back, I'm taking away Conan's dream"?
Jay: No because, again, this is an affiliate decision. The affiliates felt the ratings were low. This was the first time in the 60-year history of The Tonight Show that The Tonight Show would have lost money. And that's what it comes down to. It's really just a matter of dollars and cents. If the numbers had been there, they wouldn't have asked me. And they only asked me after Conan turned down moving it back half an hour.
Oprah: Do you feel any personal responsibility for Conan's disappointment?
Jay: No. It had nothing to do with me. I mean, as I say, there is always someone waiting in the wings in this business to take your job. If you're not doing the numbers, they move on. It's pretty simple.
Oprah: When you go back to The Tonight Show, do you think about rebuilding that audience and how you're going to do that?
Jay: Very much so. That's on my mind every day.
Oprah: And how will you do that?
Jay: I think you do it by doing the work. You find out what the elements are that worked on the show, and you try to bring those elements to it. But it's really the idea of servicing the audience. You know, the reason I work a lot on the road is you tell a joke...if a joke works in Boston and Oklahoma City and Des Moines, Iowa, and L.A., it'll work on TV.
Oprah: Do you feel you're being unfairly portrayed by the media?
Jay: Yes, I think so. I think so, but I think you have to look for a bad guy.
Oprah: Do you think that's unfair?
Jay: Yes, I think it's a little unfair, and I am going to work hard to try and rehabilitate that image.
Oprah: Do you think that now that [this] has happened, you will be able to revive, rehabilitate The Tonight Show?
Jay: I hope so. I think so. Yes. And I hope Conan gets a job somewhere else. I hope he gets on at Fox somewhere, and we all compete together. "Oh, Conan's back on." And it raises the level of interest. And you know what happens? The best one wins. Maybe I'll get my butt kicked. Maybe we'll win.
Oprah: Do you think NBC could have done something differently to make this a win/win for everyone?
Jay: Anything they did would have been better than this. Anything. Anything they did. If they had come in and shot everybody. I mean, it would have been, "Oh, people were murdered." But at least it would have been a two-day story. ... From 2004 onward, this whole thing was a huge, a huge mess.
Oprah: Did you watch Conan's final show?
Oprah: What did you think?
Jay: Great show, good performer and good comic. And a good guy. There's no animosity there.
Oprah: What did you feel about what he said in his goodbye about every comedian's dream of hosting The Tonight Show?
Jay: That's the same thing I felt.
Oprah: Now that you and your staff are going to be back on The Tonight Show starting March 1, do you feel that it's going to be humbling to go back?
Jay: Yes, I think we've got our work cut out for us. I think we have a lot of work to do. I think there's a lot of damage control that has to be done. The only way you can fix these things is to try and do good shows. Not be bitter. Not be angry or upset about whatever and just try to do the best shows you can. That's really the only answer.
Oprah: You're really good at making jokes about things, but were you embarrassed at all about how this all transpired?
Jay: Oh, yeah. It's hugely embarrassing. You know, not that I'm glad my parents
are gone—I don't mean it that way—but I'm like the last one left so I don't have to explain to the relatives how all this works.
Oprah: You said your heart was broken, how does that show itself with you? Do you go for a ride in one of your cars?
Jay: You know, I always thought, "You're doing the right thing." I always felt I was doing the right thing, and you go: "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 if 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, "Okay." 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. 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? Maybe I'm just one of these guys who thinks I see everything with rose-colored glasses and the world is falling around you."
Oprah: Did you ever ask yourself, "Well, am I being selfish?"
Jay: Sure. Yes, you ask yourself that every day.
Oprah: And your answer was? Is?
Jay: I don't think so. I don't think so.I mean, I like the job. I like all that goes with it. I fight for the people that work here. I fight to keep the jobs here. Okay, is that selfish? Maybe it is because it's self-aggrandizing. Maybe it's because it's pumping me up.
Oprah: Did you feel bad for Conan at any point?
Jay: I did. I felt really bad for Conan. I think it's unfair, but TV is not fair. I thought it was unfair for me...
Oprah: You felt bad for Conan, but you didn't think you were the reason that he should be feeling bad.
Jay: No, I wasn't the reason. The reason was the ratings.
Oprah: Do you have regrets?
Jay: Oh, yeah, I do have regrets. I regret that it wasn't handled better. I'm just not sure what I could have done differently.
Oprah: Lots of people say you could have walked away.
Jay: Well, again, but by walking away, that is an ego decision. That is me going: "No, goodbye everybody. You know something? I'm fed up with this. You all fend for yourselves. Good luck finding jobs. I'm out of here." To me, that's the ego decision. Not the other one.
Oprah: Is there a bigger lesson in all of this?
Jay: The key is not to be bitter, and I think Conan said it best when he said, "Don't be cynical."