Jay Leno Recalls Controversial Tonight Show Return in New Interview

Jay Leno is reflecting on the late night television fiasco that saw him briefly leaving The Tonight Show before making a return soon after. Back in 2009, Leno formally stepped down as the host of The Tonight Show on NBC, fulfilling a promise made years before that he would be replaced on the program by Conan O’Brien. Leno wound up staying on the network with a new show, The Jay Leno Show, that aired at 10 p.m. as a lead-in to the new Tonight Show.

Unfortunately, both shows were failing to meet the ratings expectations that NBC had been hoping for. When NBC sought to push The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien to a later time slot and air The Jay Leno Show in its place, O’Brien chose to instead leave the job, ultimately parting ways with the network to launch another talk show elsewhere. Leno was then put back into The Tonight Show where he remained until 2014.

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Looking back at the situation in a new interview for Bill Maher’s Club Random Podcast, Leno says that after the initial announcement was made that O’Brien would replace him, Craig Ferguson had become a hit with his talk show on CBS. That had NBC execs worried about having Leno from the late night landscape which is how The Jay Leno Show came into question. Leno says he was apprehensive about doing the series but acquiesced when it was promised that his entire staff would be paid for two years, even if the show was canceled.

Leno also denies that he had intentionally tried to “sabotage” O’Brien’s Tonight Show run in an attempt to get his old job back. He says that the experiment with having The Jay Leno Show air ahead of The Tonight Show wasn’t working and that he was asked by NBC about having his show pushed back with The Tonight Show coming on later. Leno agreed and suggested they ask O’Brien if he’d be alright with it, and that’s when the matter went public with Conan announcing his plans to leave the show.

“That didn’t work. ‘Oh, Leno deliberately sabotaged his show to try and get The Tonight Show.’ No, that doesn’t work, it doesn’t work that way. You try to do the best you can, and it didn’t work. And then they said, ‘How about coming on at 11:30?’ I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this again.’ He goes, ‘If Conan moves back to 12, would you do a half-hour at 11:30?’ I said, ‘Talk to Conan. If he’ll go to 12, I’ll do a half-hour, just do a monologue and one guest.’ And, of course, Conan didn’t want to do that, and that’s when he wrote the letter. And they put me back in, and we became number one again.”

Jay Leno Stayed Loyal to NBC

Bill Maher questioned why Jay Leno did not choose to find another network to launch a talk show as a way of sticking it to NBC for letting him go from The Tonight Show in the first place. Leno said he felt a sense of loyalty and also wanted to avoid having NBC upset with him as well.

“I’m pretty loyal… You know, sometimes the czar you have is better than the one you’re going to get. Here’s the thing, then you have your old team shooting at you as well. I just figured, let’s just play this out and see what happens. This all happened fairly quickly.”

Jimmy Fallon wound up taking over as host of The Tonight Show when Leno exited for good from the job in 2014, and he continues to host the program to this day.