The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: Transcript of the Host’s Side of the Story

Jay LenoThe whole Jay Leno / Conan O’Brien NBC fiasco continues to play out but supposedly a deal with O’Brien will be finalized today. He’ll walk away with $30-50 million and severance packages for his staff as well. He’ll likely be able to pursue work at another network or cable channel within the year. Leno is expected to resume hosting the Tonight Show after the Winter Olympics.

Of the two hosts, Leno has been relatively quiet on the behind-the-scenes issues. Many see him as the villain in this disaster, claiming that he’s the reason that O’Brien is being ousted. Last night, on the now-cancelled Jay Leno Show, the host gave his account of what transpired. Here’s a transcript…

“I thought maybe I should address this — at least give you my view of what has been going on here at NBC. Oh, let’s start in 2004 — 2004, I’m sitting in my office, an NBC executive comes in and says to me, ‘Listen, Conan O’Brien has gotten offers from other networks. We don’t want him to go, so we’re going to give him The Tonight Show.'”

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve been No. 1 for 12 years.’ They said, ‘We know that, but we don’t think you can sustain that.’ I said, ‘Okay. How about until I fall to No. 2, then you fire me?’ ‘No, we made this decision.’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’ Don’t blame Conan O’Brien. Nice guy, good family guy, great guy. He and I have talked, and not a problem since then. That’s what managers and people do; they try to get something for their clients. I said, ‘I’ll retire, just to avoid what happened the last time.’ Okay.”

“So time goes by, and we stay No. 1 up until the day we leave. We hand… [applause here] No, no. Okay, but I’m leaving before my contract is out. About six to eight months early. So before I could go anywhere else — I would be at least a year or 18 months before I could go and do a show somewhere else. I said to NBC, ‘Would you release me from my contract.’ They said, ‘We want to keep you here.'”

Who's most at fault in the late night fiasco?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

“Okay. What are your ideas? They said, ‘How about prime time?’ I said, ‘That will never work.’ ‘No, no, we want to put you on at 10:00. We have done focus groups. People will love you at 10:00. Look at these studies showing Jay’s chin at 10:00. People will go crazy.’ Didn’t seem like a good idea at the time. I said, ‘All right, can I keep my staff?’ There are 175 people that work here. I said, ‘Can I keep my staff?’ ‘Yes, you can. Let’s try it. We guarantee you two years on the air, guaranteed. Now for the first four or five months against original shows like CSI, you’ll get killed, but in the spring and summer when the reruns come, that’s when you’ll pick up.’ Okay, great. I agree to that.”

“Four months go by; we don’t make it. Meanwhile, Conan’s show during the summer — we’re not on — was not doing well. The great hope was that we would help him. Well, we didn’t help him any, okay. They come and go, ‘This show isn’t working. We want to let you go.’ ‘Can you let me out of my contract?’ ‘No, you’re still a valuable asset to this company.’ ‘How valuable can I be? You fired me twice. How valuable can I be?'”

“Okay. So then, the affiliates are not happy. The affiliates are the ones that own the TV stations. They’re the ones that sort of make the decisions; they’re not happy with your performance and Conan is not doing well at 11:30. I said, ‘What’s your idea?'”

They said, ‘Well, look, how about you do a half-hour show at 11:30?’ Now, where I come from, when your boss gives you a job and you don’t do it well… I think we did a good job here, but we didn’t’ get the ratings, so you get humbled. I said, ‘Okay, I’m not crazy about doing a half hour, but okay. What do you want to do with Conan?’ ‘We’ll put him on at midnight, or 12:05, keeps The Tonight Show, does all that, he gets the whole hour.’ I said, ‘Okay. You think Conan will go for that?’ ‘Yes, yes. [laughter from the audience] Almost guarantee you.’ I said okay. Shake hands, that’s it. I don’t have a manager, I don’t have an agent, that’s my handshake deal.”

“Next thing I see, Conan has a story in the paper saying he doesn’t want to do that. They come back to me and they say, ‘If he decides to walk and doesn’t want to do it, do you want the show back?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I’ll take the show back. If that’s what he wants to do. This way, we keep our people working, fine.'”

“So that’s pretty much where we are. It looks like we might be back at 11:30; I’m not sure. I don’t know. [applause] I don’t know. But through all of this — through all of this, Conan O’Brien has been a gentleman. He’s a good guy. I have no animosity towards him.”

“This is all business. If you don’t get the ratings, they take you off the air. I think you know this town, you can do almost anything. You get ratings, they keep you. I don’t get ratings; he wants. That was NBC’s solution. It didn’t work, so we might have an answer for you tomorrow. So, we’ll see. That’s basically where it is.”

What do you think? Do you believe Leno? Do you think he’s responsible for O’Brien leaving or just the benefactor of a bad situation?

Canceled and renewed TV show

7 Comments · Read them below or add one

  1. gina says

    I didn’t think Conan could replace Jay on the Tonight Show. His comic style is just too goofy. He was better with the late, late show crowd. I think Leno is being the classy guy here. O”Brien and Letterman are coming off as petty and bitter.

  2. Bookworm says

    I’m glad Jay decided to tell his side of the story. But I doubt it’ll make any difference to Conan’s fans. They want to view Jay as the bad guy. I guess he’s easier than NBC, the faceless entity. But for the rest of us logical people, we support Jay and understand that he wasn’t at fault here (and for the record I don’t think Conan was either).

  3. Gail says

    I think Conan is awful. He is not even funny. It was a bad idea in the first place to move Jay Leno. He does a great job on the show. It was hard to replace Johnny Carson. He was the greatest…

  4. Kathy says

    why doesn’t NBC have both Jay and Conan co host the Tonight Show. This way you have two great guys hosting and doing a good show. Just a thought.

  5. Dave says

    I saw that and to me it came off as very phoney. Don’t get me wrong, I blame NBC for this whole mess, but he made it seem like he is some simple low level lackey who went along with everything they said like a good puppy and to keep his staff employed. He wasn’t that ok with it as he is leading people to believe. If you listen to his monologues, they are funny but the NBC jokes have a very angry tinge about them. He didn’t need to go back and after how he has been treated by nbc going back pretty much makes him a tool in my eyes.

  6. MK says

    Oh he plays it SOOOO innocent. Leno is way more culpable than his “aw shucks” account would let on. He’s a driven work a holic and Hollywood has chosen O’Brien…..that says a lot.

Leave a Comment

Your comment may need approval from a moderator before it appears. We review comments to weed out spam, duplicate postings and personal attacks. We welcome constructive discussion.