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Leno Speaks: I'm Taking the Tonight Show for My Staff's Sake

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Last night on The Jay Leno Show, Jay gave his side of the Tonight Show takeover in terms that were his most direct yet.

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The bit where he gave a pained sigh before deciding, “Yeah, I’ll take the show back”? [About 3:30 in.] Don’t think it was meant to be a laugh line.

In a nutshell: NBC pushed him out in 2004 to keep Conan O’Brien. He didn’t want to go, but agreed to avoid a repeat of the ugliness with David Letterman. NBC offered him The Jay Leno Show in primetime, Conan took over Tonight, and we all know how well all that turned out. NBC then asked him to move to 11:35 and assured him Conan will be fine moving a half hour. [Another unintentional laugh.] When Conan balked, NBC asked Jay if he’d take the Tonight Show. He said yes—because “this way we can keep all our people working.”


OK, look. I have no doubt Leno loves and values his staff. I remember his classy, moving finale on The Tonight Show, when he brought out the children of all the staff members who’d met and married while working on his show over the years. I’m sure Jay does want to keep them working. A good boss looks out for his people. Nothing wrong with that. Everything right with that.

But: do I believe that keeping his staff working was the reason he decided that, whatever he said back in 2004, he’d take the Tonight Show back? Do you? Does he? Does anyone?

Leave aside the fact that Conan’s Tonight Show likewise has staffers with families, who moved from New York to take the job: that’s the risk you take. Leave aside that, by this logic, Jay could not, in good conscience, ever retire, as he agreed to in 2004. Leave aside the fact that Leno knew as well as anyone that The Jay Leno Show was a cost-saving device specifically designed to unemploy the staffs of as many NBC 10 p.m. dramas as possible. Jay is not responsible for saving everyone’s job.

Leaving all that aside—Jay Leno has a reason to want to take the Tonight Show back, and it’s a perfectly understandable one. He wants to be the host of the Tonight Show. And I’m not entirely sure why he couldn’t simply say something like:

Listen, I think Conan’s a nice guy, a class act and I have nothing against him. But NBC forced me to leave the Tonight Show when I was #1. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t deserve it. I loved that job, and I was damn good at it. And the Tonight Show is not just any job. When you’re in our business, that desk is like the Oval Office. It’s the one thing you dream of. Conan had a shot, it didn’t work out. Maybe it wasn’t fair, but we all know that’s the business and we’re all rich men at the end of the day. Then NBC offered me back the one job I wanted more than anything. Am I made of stone? Of course I said yes. I wish Conan all the best, and I’m grateful to have this second chance.

Leno would have said it better, but you get the point.

That said, I at least give Jay credit for addressing the actual facts on the ground—that he is not just “being fired,” but apparently getting a tremendous promotion after The Jay Leno Show “didn’t work out.” And his speech included some other interesting nuggets, like the fact that he asked NBC to let him out of his contract early.

And at least Jay didn’t tell us he made the move to save Carson Daly’s staff.