If anyone was still on Leno’s side in the Conan vs. Leno battle for the once great, now defunct The Tonight Show, this interview should help you to finally take a side. That side will undoubtedly be Conan’s as Leno fails to make himself look like a gentleman in the whole thing. I’m going to point out the hypocrisy of Leno, as well as his failure to think beyond himself, even when he’s claiming to.
What I’m going to do is quote the important parts of the interview, and I might comment on the quote, if I feel it necessary to elaborate on what should be fairly obvious.
WINFREY: It all started five years ago when Jay says NBC came to him and asked him to give up his number one rated “Tonight Show” to make room for Conan O’Brien to become host in 2009.
[GRAPHICS: THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO SEPTEMBER 27, 2004]
Mr. LENO: This show is like a dynasty, you hold it and then you hand it off to the next person. So right now here it is, Conan, it’s yours. See you in five years, buddy. Okay.
Here’s where Leno acknowledges what the Tonight Show used to be. A dynasty, which he has now ruined. That was also his first lie.
WINFREY: Okay. So were you planning at the end of that five-year period, 2009, you were–what were you going to do?
Mr. LENO: Well, I did tell a white lie on the air, I said I’m going to retire. It just made it easier that way. But I assumed I would find a job in show business somewhere. If I kept “The Tonight Show” number one…
WINFREY: Did you think you’d go to another network?
Mr. LENO: I assumed that’s what would happen, yeah.
A white lie is a lie, Mr. Leno. In the end there are no different levels to lies. It’s either the truth, or it’s a lie. You lied.
And here’s where he starts talking about the people that work for him:
WINFREY: Mm-hmm. So at what point did the NBC executives come to you and say, “We want you to do your show in prime time?”
Mr. LENO: Well, the fly in the ointment was, uh-oh, we were number one right up until the day we left. In fact, they had me leave seven months early before my contract was up because this would preclude me from going somewhere. And plus, I have 175 people that work for me. So I thought well, the best way to keep things smooth was NBC came up with this 10:00 idea, and you know, I said…
WINFREY: When did they come up with the 10:00 idea?
Mr. LENO: I guess it was in the fall of 2008. And they had their charts and the graphs. “Well, you see people would love to see you at this time.” They had all these things about why it might work at 10:00. And I said, “Well, can I keep my same staff? Can we keep–maybe take a month and a half off or so and then bring everybody back in a smooth transition?” And they said, “Yeah, we can do that.” I said, “Okay, let’s try it.”
WINFREY: So this was your option, moving to prime time rather than going to another network or going through looking for another job…
Mr. LENO: Well, going to another network, boy, it’s a lot of work. I mean you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know who you’re dealing with. I’ve been at this network since 1984 in one form or another. I know the lighting guys, I know what lighting guys I want, I know the makeup–I just know–I’m comfortable here. I’m not someone who jumps around.
Listen, Leno: did you not realize that your people, all 175 of them, also were aware that they had only 5 years left of working on The Tonight Show? That they all had five YEARS to figure out what they were going to do next? Most people would love to know that they were set for five years, and had that long to find another job.
WINFREY: The other side of that, many people say that your going into prime time five nights a week, it took away thousands of jobs from other people who would have been working on dramas…
Mr. LENO: I’ve got to admit, that was not something I even realized until we went on the air. But they’re not wrong. I have to admit, that one did catch me. We were on the air when I realized, wow, I have to admit, that one I didn’t know about that.
WINFREY: Because you weren’t thinking about…
Mr. LENO: No, I wasn’t thinking about that at the time.
WINFREY: …the shows that would have been on had you not been on.
Mr. LENO: Right. Right.
So, he didn’t think past his 175 co-workers, to the many thousands of people out of work due to a lack of prime time tv series. And again, the 175 employees had five long years to figure out where to go next. Thousands of people are unemployed because he didn’t think of the consequences. He could have said “no.” It wasn’t like NBC was forcing his hand to sign.
WINFREY: Do you feel any personal responsibility for Conan’s disappointment?
Mr. LENO: No. It had nothing to do with me.
Mr. LENO: I mean, as I say, there’s always someone waiting in the wings in this business to take your job. If you’re not doing the numbers, they move on. It’s pretty simple.
Conan’s ratings were down… like Leno’s were when HE took over the Tonight Show. It took Leno 3 years to be on top of Letterman. Leno also didn’t have “The Johnny Carson Show” as a lead in at 10pm each night, to steal ratings. It had EVERYTHING to do with Leno still being on TV. The simple fact is that NBC made bad business decision after bad business decision. It was all about the bottom line, and while that’s understandable as a business owner, it was also really stupid. As a business owner, you look for ways to save money, sure, but you also look out for the future. Leno doesn’t have as long as Conan does in late night. Instead of making expensive shows, NBC chose to save money by putting a cheap Leno show on at 10. They saved money, sure, but lost a fortune when Leno’s numbers weren’t good.
Leno’s horrible numbers translated to less people watching NBC affiliate news at 11, and as a direct result: Conan getting even worse numbers. This was the cause of the Tonight Show potentially showing in the red for the first time in 60 years. It was nothing Conan did. It was NBC’s fault for keeping Jay Leno around.
NBC also opted to not think about the future. Giving Conan the chance, without Leno on TV, would have forced people to actually give Conan a chance to win their hearts, which I’m sure they would have.. and will at Fox, or wherever he ends up.
Not to mention: Conan uprooted his ENTIRE staff, moved them all to California from New York, and they’re all looking for work after only seven months.
WINFREY: We asked viewers to weigh in on the Jay versus Conan controversy. About 80,000 of you responded to our Oprah.com poll. When asked whose side are you on, Jay’s or Conan’s, a staggering 96% of you said Conan. And 94% of you believe Jay should not go back to “The Tonight Show.”
And now here’s where Oprah lays it on thick, and I think that Leno has basically been backed into a corner and is forced to confront, for the first time, the things we’ve all been thinking. Not only that, but his answers show him to be self-serving. He’s got very poor logic in his thought process about the whole situation, and doesn’t appear to be thinking about the larger effect that it has had/is having.
WINFREY: Honestly, you know, we’re not like friends talking all the time but I think over the years we’ve developed a friendly relationship. So many people were against you. We did an Oprah.com poll, and there were so many people who were on Conan’s side, that I started asking like do I have it wrong? Am I missing something here? Because the way I understood it is the way that you’ve explained it.
Mr. LENO: Right, right.
WINFREY: So the fact that so many people seem to feel that you are being the selfish guy…
Mr. LENO: Right.
WINFREY: …who–that’s why I’m asking you the questions, who stole Conan’s dream? That’s why I keep, you know, hammering on is there a part of you that feels that you should have just retired?
Mr. LENO: Well, like I say, to me, being retired seemed like the selfish thing to do.
Mr. LENO: You walk out and say to the 170 people that work here, “Listen, I don’t want to get my reputation ruined, I don’t want anybody talking bad about me. So I’ve got enough money, I’m going to leave. You people can all fend for yourself.” I mean to me, it’s sort of a team effort. Everybody’s in it here together, and as long I’m working, they’re working and that seems to make sense to me. Is it a little selfish in that I still like being on TV? Oh, sure. But, you know, the minute you can’t do the job, they do tap you on the shoulder and tell you to leave. I mean, nobody is around who can’t do the job because you’re gone, you’re gone in a half a second.
WINFREY: Did you feel bad for Conan at any point?
Mr. LENO: I did, I felt really bad for Conan. I think it’s unfair, but TV is not fair. I thought it was unfair for me.
WINFREY: You felt that for Conan, but you didn’t think you caused–you were the reason …
Mr. LENO: No, I wasn’t the reason. The reason was the ratings.
WINFREY: Mm-hmm. Do you have regrets?
Mr. LENO: Oh, yeah, I do have regrets. I regret that it wasn’t handled better. I’m just not sure what I could have done differently.
WINFREY: Lots of people say you could have walked away.
Mr. LENO: Again, by walking away, that is an ego decision. That is me going, “No, goodbye, everybody, you know something? I’m fed up with this. You-all fend for yourselves. Good luck finding jobs, I’m out of here. To me, that’s the ego decision, not the other one.
WINFREY: Is it, really?
Mr. LENO: Oh, yeah, I think so, I think so. Like …
WINFREY: How is it an ego decision for you to say I’ve done it, I’ve done “The Tonight Show,” I’ve tried it prime time, that didn’t work. Thank you, NBC. I’ll take my paycheck and go.”
Mr. LENO: If I was going to do it that way I would say maybe after these two years of being on the air, I would tell my staff, “One year from today, it’s over, guys.”
WINFREY: But you could have done what–do you think now you could have done what Conan did? When they came in and said your prime time show’s canceled, you say okay, you owe me two years, because that’s what you said at the beginning.
Mr. LENO: Right, right.
WINFREY: You were guaranteed at least a year.
Mr. LENO: Right.
WINFREY: Two years if you were successful.
Mr. LENO: Right.
WINFREY: Pay me out, pay out my staff. You could have done that.
Mr. LENO: I could have done that, but I didn’t. They offered me my old job back.
WINFREY: Right, I get that.
Mr. LENO: Which is the dream job. I said okay.
WINFREY: Is there a bigger lesson in all of this?
Mr. LENO: The key is not to be bitter and I think Conan said it best when he said don’t be cynical.
WINFREY: Mm-hmm. And yet you said earlier you haven’t called him?
Mr. LENO: It’s not the right time, because I’m not sure what I would say right now. Let some time pass and I would hope we can talk again.
WINFREY: Will you have him on your show?
Mr. LENO: I would love to. I don’t know whether he would do it or not. I think he will have a successful show on Fox or somewhere else.
WINFREY: Wherever he goes.
Mr. LENO: And then we will all compete again and may the best man win.
Oprah then ends it with a call out to repeat this interview with Conan, to talk about the situation. Personally, I think Leno’s speaks for Conan when Leno shows what everyone knows him to be. A guy that doesn’t really see things for what they really are. Who likes to put others down to make himself feel better about himself. He’s the schoolyard bully, and that type of humor is not funny.
And to Mr. Leno, I say: