Jay Leno Tells ’60 Minutes’ He’d Prefer To Keep ‘Tonight’ Roost

Farewell interview surfaces as NBC is trying to lure viewers to idea of Jimmy Fallon as host

Tonight Show With Jay Leno

All things considered, Jay Leno would rather stay behind the desk of NBC’s venerable “Tonight Show.”

In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that could serve to undermine some of the hoopla surrounding NBC’s promotional efforts to launch Jimmy Fallon as the next host of its latenight mainstay, Leno tells “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft, ““Well, it’s always nice to keep working. Sure it is… But am I extremely grateful. Yeah.” The segment is slated to air Sunday on “60 Minutes.”

Leaving the program after a tenure of more than 20 years (well, with one major interruption) is “not my decision and I think I probably would have stayed if we didn’t have an extremely qualified, young guy ready to jump in,” Leno also said in the interview. He praised his successor, saying that Fallon “is probably more like a young Johnny [Carson] than almost anybody since. And he’s really good. So you go with the new guy. Makes perfect sense to me.”

The interview will air just as NBC has commenced a major marketing initiative aimed at generating viewership for the launch of a New York-based, Fallon-led “Tonight” set to debut February 17 – just as NBC is in the midst of broadcasting a sure-fire ratings hit: The Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia. Already, NBC has launched a promo depicting Fallon as the latest in a line of the show’s handful of hosts, which include Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Leno, and Conan O’Brien. In another, Fallon plays up the program’s return to New York City for the first time in decades:

NBC’s wee-hours transition will likely be under much scrutiny. Why? When the company was under different management, it attempted to transition from Leno to a new host, with disastrous results. In 2009, Leno was pushed out from behind the desk in favor of Conan O’Brien, but given a five-days-a-week berth in NBC’s primetime in an effort to keep the latenight mainstay from venturing elsewhere. The ill-advised shuffle  sparked outcry from NBC affiliates who thought low ratings for Leno’s 10 p.m. roost were wiping away viewership for late local news, a large contributor to stations’ ad revenue. As a result, Leno returned to “Tonight” and O’Brien left the network altogether.

The move, Leno said in the “60 Minutes” interview, left him feeling “blindsided.” NBC executives made him feel jilted, he added during the talk:  “You know, you have a girl [who] says, ‘I don’t want to see you anymore.’  Why? You know, she doesn’t want to see you anymore, okay?” Leno also said he felt awful when NBC’s decision to return him to “Tonight” had many seeing him as a villain in the ensuing drama.   “I didn’t quite understand that, but I never chose to answer any of those things or make fun of any other people involved,” he said. “It’s not my way.”

Leno previously gave Kroft an interview in 1992,  when he took over the program from Johnny Carson. The succession process spurred David Letterman, then the host of “Late Night,” the show that followed Carson, to decamp to CBS to start a rival program at 11:30 p.m.