Jay Leno Denies He ‘Deliberately’ Sabotaged Conan O’Brien To Reclaim ‘Tonight Show’ Job

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Jay Leno denies he deliberately sabotaged Conan O’Brien Tonight Show host. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Jay Leno revisits some of his nighttime feuds.

Appearing on Club Random with Bill Maher, the 72-year-old comedian recounted his past drama surrounding his departure from and return to the Tonight Show. He denied that he “deliberately sabotaged” his successor, Conan O’Brien, and admitted that he also apologized to Jimmy Kimmel about the whole affair after flirting with a move to TBEN that allegedly influenced Kimmel.

In 2004, NBC announced that Leno would hand over the reins of the iconic show to O’Brien five years later, in 2009. But as the time drew near and Leno considered new shows on rival networks, NBC made a play to keep him. the new Jay Leno Show which would lead to the Tonight Show. The situation was awkward with Leno not leaving, neither show did well and the end result was O’Brien left NBC and Leno returned to his Tonight Show desk.

“‘Oh, Leno deliberately sabotaged his show to try to… Tonight Show [back],'” Leno told Maher about speculation about how it turned out. “No… it doesn’t work that way. You try your best – and it didn’t work.”‘

Leno talked about NBC suggesting O’Brien that the… Tonight Show moved to a later time, midnight, to give Leno back his old timeslot amid struggling ratings.

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“I said, ‘Talk to Conan,'” he recalled. “Of course Conan wouldn’t do that. Then he wrote the letter. Then they put me back in [as Tonight Show] host and we became number one again.”

Leno continued to host until 2014 when he was succeeded by Jimmy Fallon. Maher asked why he didn’t just move to another network after NBC initially contracted O’Brien as the new host. Leno said other networks, including TBEN and TBEN, tried to lure him “but I’m pretty loyal.”

Maher said, “What? [Loyal] to these motherfuckers who fired you in the first place?

Leno replied, “Sometimes the Tsar you have is better than the one you are going to get.” Not to mention, “Then your old team will shoot you too. I thought let’s just play this out and see what happens.”

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At the time, when TBEN did a game to lure Leno — which would have pitted him against his longtime main rival David Letterman on TBEN and O’Brien on NBC — it would have needed Jimmy Kimmel Live! that the midnight timeslot has shifted. Leno said he contacted Kimmel at the time — and the whole thing ended up causing friction with Kimmel as well.

“I called Jimmy and said, ‘I’m getting offers from TBEN. I don’t want to start anything here…I think he said yes [he would push back his timeslot]’ he recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, okay. We became friends. Then it didn’t – and it became public.”

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Airdate 10/1/08 -- Episode 3473 -- Pictured: (lr) Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel during an interview with host Jay Leno on January 10, 2008 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/ NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Jimmy Kimmel during an interview with host Jay Leno in 2008. (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

In hindsight, “I think I should have called Jimmy and explained to him ‘that he was staying with NBC’ but I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. I just didn’t. I thought he probably But I think he might have been hurt because of that, and I apologized to him for that.”

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Kimmel spoke to Maher himself in June and shared his side of what happened. He called Leno a “bad introduction” to O’Brien’s Tonight Show, setting up for the ratings failure, in an effort for Leno to retake the show. He called Leno’s actions “devils.”

In Leno’s interview with Maher, he called himself “a fan” of Kimmel’s. But he said Kimmel “somehow this thing has that… It was one of those awkward situations where he was a huge Letterman guy and then Letterman the Tonight Show‘, when Johnny Carson retired in 1992 and Leno got the job, ‘It was somehow my fault. I think he hated that and I understand that.”

As for his longtime rival Letterman, who he talked to for years, he said NBC “had no intention of going to the Tonight Show. “I remember asking [former NBC exec Jeff] Zucker, “Doesn’t Letterman have this job?” He said, “No,” and added, “There were a lot of executives who didn’t like Dave for whatever reason.”

While summarizing Leno’s nighttime feuds, Maher joked, “I sometimes confuse this with the first Iraq war.”

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