Jay Leno: Conan’s ‘Tonight’ Exit ‘Certainly Not My Fault’

Downplaying succession drama or 'intrigue,' host insists he's ready for NBC's latest latenight baton pass

Jay Leno Last Man Standing
Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic

Jay Leno is doing all he can to endorse Jimmy Fallon as his heir, as NBC seeks to engineer a smoother-than-usual “The Tonight Show” handoff. Yet in an interview with Variety, Leno stressed that if the last baton pass to Conan O’Brien didn’t take, the responsibility lies elsewhere.

Having been painted as the bad guy in past latenight succession dramas – from getting the job instead of David Letterman, to returning and thus causing O’Brien to leave – Leno stressed, as is his habit, that showbiz is an unforgiving game and blaming others for one’s setbacks is a pointless exercise.

So while O’Brien – and some of his most ardent fans – felt aggrieved by Leno’s return to latenight after his primetime experiment with “The Jay Leno Show,” it’s clear the host doesn’t have much sympathy for that point of view.

“If you want to blame the whole thing on me, I guess that’s OK,” he said. “If you think the whole reason that show didn’t work is because of me, you’re certainly welcome to believe that. [But] if Conan was not give a fair shake by NBC, that’s certainly not my fault.”

Leno – who told “60 Minutes” he felt “blindsided” when NBC approached him in 2004, saying they were (eventually) going to give the show O’Brien – seems at peace today. Part of that has to do with being asked about moving up his departure to capitalize on the Olympics in launching Fallon, he says, as opposed to being presented the situation as a fait accompli.

“The difference is this time they asked me,” he said. “Last time they told me.”

The host is also a decade older, and at 63, within a few years of Johnny Carson’s retirement age (66) when Leno replaced him in 1992.

Still, Leno’s comment to “60 Minutes” that it helped knowing Fallon was “an extremely qualified young guy ready to jump in” raised eyebrows. That’s because nothing in Fallon’s resume makes him any more “qualified” than O’Brien was, having served as Leno’s understudy for a dozen years when NBC promised him the promotion, and — in a sign of how much he wanted it – waiting another five after that.

Everyone knew O’Brien’s contract was coming up and that he was perceived to have options if NBC didn’t signal its commitment to him. The problem was the network botched the “We don’t want to lose Conan” discussion by making Leno’s happiness — or any sense of gratitude for his performance — seem like an afterthought.

Nothing was different when the same set of concerns arose regarding Fallon and his future prospects, prompting the network’s latest management team to try to engineer another transition — letting the process uncomfortably drag on for weeks through leaks and speculation. So if Leno sounds more sanguine about matters this time, it has little to do with the quality of his replacement and everything to do with Leno being a decade older and perhaps a bit wearier.

“When you’re older you just sort of slow down and look for other things to do,” he said, adding that a repackaged version of the show he’s doing now doesn’t interest him, and doing so would be “not fair to ‘The Tonight Show.’”

Of course, that exact threat – that Leno might leave NBC and set up shop at ABC or Fox – is precisely what drove the network to move him into primetime in 2009.

Leno can certainly stay busy playing comedy dates – he has 117 currently scheduled, he said – and he admits he’s “not a sitter-on-the-beach guy.” But so far, the prospect of another regular TV gig doesn’t appeal to him, despite offers and NBC’s stated desire to establish an emeritus relationship, in the way Bob Hope hosted holiday specials. The network tried the same with Carson, who balked at any kind of return.

Leno is certainly being the good soldier in helping promote the shift. On Monday, he and Fallon appeared together on NBC’s “Today” show, sitting at a table in what looked like they were reenacting a scene from “The Godfather.” (Matt Lauer, incidentally, appears to have thrown in the towel on doing anything except carrying the network’s water in these situations.)

“Obviously, I look up to Jay,” Fallon said, as the two gave the impression of a mutual-admiration society — which wasn’t true of O’Brien, a Letterman admirer and loyalist, like many of the comics of his generation.

Leno also downplayed the sense of drama surrounding “The Tonight Show,” suggesting the “dynasty” had survived past succession situations and continued to do just fine.

“There’s not a lot of intrigue here,” he told Variety.

Maybe so. But as much as Leno seeks to downplay it, “The Tonight Show” and drama have a way of going hand in hand.

Kroft opened his piece by stating Leno’s exit was ultimately about demographics, and there’s truth in that – just as Carson was elbowed toward the door thanks to similar fears the network needed to present a younger latenight profile. As Kroft put it — falsely implying this was somehow new — “It’s part of a demographic shift that is beginning to effect millions of baby boomers being pushed aside to make way for a younger generation – the inevitable changing of the guard.”

Letterman, however – who will never win any employee-of-the-month awards given his prickly personality – hasn’t had to deal with that at CBS, where management has mostly left him alone. Asked whether he felt he deserved that sort of treatment given all the years he has kept NBC No. 1 in latenight, Leno laughed, noting that for “Tonight Show” hosts, leaving while still on top is more the rule than the exception.

“Welcome to real life,” he said. “It’s sort of living in the real world.”