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Does Anybody Believe Jay Leno Is Just Fine With Leaving the Tonight Show?

In a 60 Minutes interview, Jay has only nice things to say about Jimmy Fallon. But don't get the wrong impression.

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CBS has released excerpts of a 60 Minutes interview with Jay Leno airing Sunday. In this clip, he says some nice things about Jimmy Fallon, the young man who will replace him on The Tonight Show next month. He likens Fallon to Johnny Carson and says that NBC has “an extremely qualified young guy ready to jump in… So you go with the new guy. Makes perfect sense to me.”

But: Fallon is replacing Jay in the same fashion and for the same reasons as did extremely qualified young guy Conan O’Brien, a transition that you may recall did not play out so smoothly. He is replacing him, when—just like in 2009—Jay is still leading his time slot. And as Jay also says to 60 Minutes, if he had his druthers, he would have stayed at The Tonight Show.

There are two ways, then, to read this: Jay is really OK with retiring this time. Or: Jay is biding his time. Call me crazy, but I’m going with #2.

I am not a mind-reader, but I think here as always you can understand Jay’s comments by understanding a few simple principles: Jay is a pro. Jay is canny. Jay is all business. And Jay loves to work.

So: Jay Leno says he understands NBC’s decision. I’m sure he does! He didn’t just fall off the 1920s vintage turnip truck. He knows this business.

But here are a few things “I understand” does not mean: 1) “I like it.” 2) “I agree with it.” 3) “I will do nothing to undermine this enterprise in the future, should it prove to be in my interests.” 4) “If you’ll excuse me now, I’m going off to the garage, where I shall tinker with my cars for the rest of my life.”

I interviewed Jay around the Tonight transition in 2009, and he explained his philosophy about speaking diplomatically: “There’s the close-the-goddam-window school of thought,and there’s the is-it-cold-in-here-or-is-it-me? school of thought. I come from the is-it-cold-in-here? school.”

It’s not 2009 anymore. This time, it’s more in Jay’s interests to play nicely. He has less leverage against NBC—ABC’s 11:35 spot is now spoken for, e.g., and he’s not going to get another 10 p.m. show out of NBC to keep him busy until he can be re-installed. And he doesn’t want to come off as the bad guy the same way he did in the 2009-10 Jaypocalypse. (And incidentally, when Jay was, as he now says, “blindsided” in 2004, he originally had only the best to say about Conan and NBC’s decision.) This time, even if Fallon does no better than Conan in the ratings, the Tonight Show is gone, and I think Jay is savvy enough to realize it.

But that doesn’t mean Jay is gone, at least if anyone gives him a reasonable alternative.

And by the way—God bless him for it! I may not love him as a talk-show host, and I may have thought Conan was set up to fail in the Jaypocalypse, but it’s not a federal crime to want to stay in show business. And if Jay gets that chance—from CNN or Fox or some cable channel or streaming service or brain-implant device to be named later—he’ll take it, and congrats, Jimmy, I look forward to competing with ya!

Now, I have no idea if he will get that chance. But let’s just say a window is open. Because I think I just heard Jay Leno say that it’s cold in here.