Tuned In

Leno Takes His Case to the Oprah Nation

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If you are celebrity trying to get past a major public controversy, one time-tested option is to do a dramatic interview on late-night TV. If you are the once and future host of the Tonight Show, however, and the hosts of every other late-night show apparently think you are the biggest jerk in showbiz, that is not so much of an option.

For Jay Leno, then, that left The Oprah Winfrey Show, where he took his case today.

Leno’s decision to go on Oprah still puzzles me. Yes, there was a lot of acrimony over Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show ouster, but the most intense ire came from people who were never going to watch Jay in the first place. You could have thought just as badly of Jay already for how he got the Tonight Show over David Letterman, if you cared. Most of America didn’t.

If that’s true, then going on Oprah simply raises a question before a mass audience—Is Jay Leno a good guy and should I still watch him?—that they otherwise would never have pondered in the first place. Suddenly people who would have been perfectly happy to watch you tell some jokes and go to bed are wondering if you’re James Frey.

Jay Leno has always claimed not to employ managers and handlers. Maybe the public bashing simply really got to him and he had to speak his piece. Or maybe NBC thinks Jay is more damaged than I do; maybe they have research to that effect. Oprah cited an Oprah.com poll finding that 94% of respondents thought Jay should not go back to the Tonight Show—an online poll and in no way scientific, but not a number a guy who loves to be loved likes to hear.

So Jay got to explain himself on his own terms. Those terms, however, were pretty much those he used to explain himself on The Jay Leno Show: NBC forced him out in 2004, he “got fired” twice, Conan didn’t get the ratings, and that’s business. [Here’s The Daily Wrap’s transcript of the interview.] All this came, by the way, when Conan is reportedly legally constrained from disparaging NBC, so he’s got the floor to his self.

There was a little new material here, though, and some interesting highlights:

* Leno said that his statement in 2004 that he was retiring was “a little white lie.” And he talked about his thought process in taking back Tonight and then getting hammered for it:

How can you do the right thing and just have it go so wrong? Maybe I’m not doing the right thing, I would think. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. This many people are angry and upset over a television show. I mean, I had a show. My show got canceled. They weren’t happy with the other guy’s show. They said, “We want you to go back,” and I said, OK. And this seemed to make a lot of people really upset. And I go, “Well, who wouldn’t take that job though? Who wouldn’t do that?”

* This is as close as Jay has come to owning up to the obvious and simple (and perfectly understandable) truth: I never wanted to leave the show, and I took it back because I wanted it. What’s wrong with that? He didn’t quite, and he doesn’t seem comfortable with being seen as that guy: his story is still that he had to take the show to save the jobs of his staff. But it’s fascinating to hear him approach it. How could I not do this? Why wouldn’t people be happy for me?

* Another interesting bit, to someone who’s covered and interviewed Leno, was his saying that losing the Tonight Show “broke my heart.” Leno is famously guarded, not a guy given to “carry his emotions on his sleeve,” as he says. And even though he always made plain he didn’t think he should have lost Tonight, he pointedly never put it in emotional terms when promoting The Jay Leno Show. I don’t doubt it did break his heart, mind you, but it seems to be no accident that he chose to say that now, looking for sympathy from Oprah’s viewers.

* Speaking of interviewing Jay: That was my August TIME cover story Oprah held up on the air. Good to hear that Jay read it—”It was… fair“—and that he noted that being called “The Future of Television” was “Not necessarily a good thing.” (Which, if you read the story, is quite true: “NBC is trading creative innovation for business-model innovation. It is becoming the Sheinhardt Wig Co.”)

* Likewise, glad to see Jay is also skeptical that Oprah is giving up her talk show. And their talk about that showed why this was such a good match of interviewer and subject: Jay and Oprah are among the few people on Earth who understand something of what it’s like to be each other.

* Jay, unsurprisingly, was at his best when cracking jokes. (“If [NBC had] come in and shot everybody, I mean, it would have been people murdered, but at least it would have been a two-day story!”) And his argument that TV is just business—which has the advantage of being true—works better than his “I just did it to save my staff” argument. But in his presentation, Jay on Oprah did not look like the Jay of the Tonight Show. He was sometimes bluff and joking, but sometimes seemed serious and little tired. Are people interested in seeing Jay Leno as the sad clown?

* Oprah, for her part, was more aggressive than I expected. This was no Frey-style grilling, but she asked Jay if he felt he had been “selfish” (no, for the record) and said she thought making jokes about David Letterman’s cheating on his longtime girlfriend (now wife) was not funny and “was beneath you.” (Jay maintained that it was just one joke, and a funny one.)

But in the end, Oprah also said that she had Jay on because she thought people were being unfair to Jay, and that viewers were against him because “people don’t understand how television works.” Was her endorsement all he needed? With Rachael Ray and Dr. Phil, Oprah has shown us she can create talk-show stars. We’ll have to see if she has the power to refurbish them too.