Leno On Oprah: The Ten Quotes Meant To Convince Us He's Not A Monster Who Stomped On Coco's Dreams

We thought that Friday's LiveTweet of Conan O'Brien's final Tonight Show would be the last we'd need to worry about The Great Late Night Wars of 2010, really, we did. After the final bars of "Free Bird" faded out, we took off our foam CoCo wig, placed it on a high shelf, and were ready to move on with our lives. (Well, at least until O'Brien, rising like a phoenix that had just eaten a peacock whole and pooped out a pile of rainbow-colored ashes, alighted at Fox some seven months hence.) But: Leno. Here he comes again, offering us not even a week of peace, to give His Side of the Story on Oprah later today. The Chicago Tribune's Mo Ryan has already heroically provided a transcript of Leno's first stop on his damage control tour; after the jump, the choicest quotes from Leno's effort to buff his irrevocably tarnished Nice Guy image before reassuming the Tonight Show throne in March:

1. On letting the world know that contrary to published reports, he actually does have a heart, and being forced into a slow-developing retirement hurt, and hey, let's get on the record that Conan O'Brien's not the first comedian who thought The Tonight Show was the best and most desirable gig in television, have you already forgotten Leno hid in a closet and did all sorts of unpleasant things to get that great job in the first place? Hiding in a closet takes a lot out of a guy, you never really shake that reputation as a weasely closet-hider, you know?:

"It broke my heart. It really did I was devastated. This was the job that I had always wanted and this was the only job that ever mattered in show business -- to me. It's the job every comic aspires to. It was just like, why?"

2. On his confusion between a "white lie" and "totally insincere nonsense that would temporarily make him look like a good guy," when he gave that famous torch-passing speech back in 2004, with the retirement thing and all the disingenuous talk about how Conan is great and some humble stuff about how he's no Johnny Carson, that has since been replayed millions of times as evidence of his self-preserving mendacity. What was he supposed to say? "I have no idea why I just agreed to the most insane plan in late-night history, instead of just taking my first-place audience across the street to crush the network that had the balls to ask me if it could suck the life out of me for five more years, then toss my desiccated husk in a canyon off Mulholland once they've decided I'm all used up?":

"Well, I did tell a white lie on the air. I said, 'I'm going to retire.'" It was just maybe easier that way."

3. On why the show failed, i.e. the reasons basically everyone on the planet saw coming the minute the crazy-sounding plan was announced, except the people at NBC too terrified to let Leno leave:

"I think the show failed because it was basically a late-night talk show at 10 o'clock. You're competing with dramas that are $3 to $6 million an episode."

4. On whether or not he was given enough time to make the 10 p.m. experiment work, and how stunned he was to discover that people might take an interest in a fiasco where two of the biggest TV stars in the world were essentially pitted against one another in nightly gladiatorial combat, a nasty, gore-splattered battle that evoked David Vs. Goliath, Young Vs. Old, Jauntily Bepompadoured Good Vs. Anvil-Chinned Evil, with nothing but the most coveted job in show business at stake:

"I was given enough time. It didn't work. It's a TV show that got canceled. I am actually surprised that this got this much attention."

5. On the numbers, the odds, and reminding people that this was really Conan's fault for not performing following NBC's devastated primetime lineup:

"It all comes down to numbers in show business. This is almost the perfect storm of bad things happening. You have two hit shows -- 'Tonight Show' No. 1 and Conan No. 1. You move them both to another situation. And what are the odds that both would do extremely poorly? If Conan's numbers had been a little bit higher, it wouldn't even be an issue. But in show business, there's always somebody waiting in the wings. Being me."

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  • Justa Notherguy says:

    Ironic, isn't it? As shown by this article (and unfortunately for Mr. Leno and his bosses at NBC), the basic story of their programming fiasco just won't go away. And their endless stream of carefully worded explanations - much less, soul-searching interviews on 'Oprah' - don't seem to be helping much, either. I think a big part of that is all of the history between Leno, NBC, and The Tonight Show.
    For any readers too young to recall (or maybe just not interested in late night TV, at the time), it might help your perspective on the current Leno vs O'Brien mess to read some background on the original Leno vs Letterman feud. Here's the full story of how Jay Leno took over the 'The Tonight Show' hosting gig from long-time host Johnny Carson, way back in 1993.
    http://bit.ly/6FjAQq (complete article - NY Times; 1994)

  • JM says:

    Thought this was interesting:
    via tvguide.com schedule for the current Tonight Show repeats:
    Tonight Show w/ Conan O'Brien - The former 'Late Night' funnyman hosts the venerable talk show featuring celebrities and music acts. O'Brien followed Jay Leno as host in June 2009.
    And Leno is a corporate 'Yes man' if there ever was one. Maybe the reason it was a big deal is because the story resonated with a lot people out there who have been in similar situations, esp. I'm sure with Conan's younger audience who are seeing their futures squandered by Leno's Boomer/geriatric fan base. Pretty neat packaging of culture and ageist clash really, all for free.
    Oh, and I hope Conan doesn't go to Fox. A Stewart/Colbert/Conan lineup on Comedy Central would be golden I would think.

  • stolidog says:

    That photo makes me think they're doing a sequel to Mars Attacks!

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    I loved the way he said the big reason he was taking the show back was that he was thinking of his staff, and making sure they have jobs. Yet he admitted he NEVER EVEN THOUGHT about the thousands of jobs that he killed by taking the 10 pm slot five nights a week. Idiot.
    And "the key is to not be bitter." WTF? He's deranged.

  • Dee says:

    Jay Leno doesn't own The Tonight Show; he's an employee too. He and Conan are victims of some really stupid decision making on the part of NBC execs. WHY would you move around two #1 TV shows (The Tonight Show & Late Night w/Conan). It's because of decisions like that that NBC is all screwed up now. In addition, if ratings were up on The Tonight Show with Conan, this wouldn't have happened. Is there a slight possibility that Conan just didn't fit the bill for the traditional Tonight Show audience?

  • CoolConan says:

    See, he's talking, but all I hear is, "Blah, blah blah, blah blah blah." He set Conan up for failure; he knows it, and anyone who's smart and pays attention knows it. I just recently read "The Late Shift" and boy does it have some gems in there about how Leno laughed uncontrollably and bragged about how he planned and spied on the executives to hear their opinions on what makes a successful show and host and shoved it in their faces, how people in t.v know that viewership is notably low in the summer time and to avoid premiering a new show in the summer (Conan's Tonight Show premiered June 1, Leno's suckfest premiered in September), how Leno and his manager schemed to get Carson removed form hosting, and boy are there some others. Leno knows he's an a-hole, otherwise he wouldn't feel the need to go on Oprah to try to redeem himself.

  • OldTowneTavern says:

    I'm relieved Oprah didn't lob softball questions. The one thing I wish she would have asked, is if Leno thought The Tonight Show should have been taken from him in the first 18 months in the early 90's when his ratings were tanking. A fair question, since he kept insisting that it all comes down to numbers. I'd like to have seen him try to sidestep that issue.

  • Amrita says:

    “I think the show failed because it was basically a late-night talk show at 10 o’clock. You’re competing with dramas that are $3 to $6 million an episode.”
    Um, wasn't this why he was supposed to be the "future of television" as per himself before his show tanked?

  • lucas says:

    i don't buy that one bit. Jay didn't need the job. And he wasn't in a position where he couldn't say no. NBC wanted to cancel his 10 pm gig. fine. Cancel it. But he could have shown some respect and said "the torch has been past and it's not fair to Conan and his staff to just pitch them out. You want me to do something else, fine. But leave Conan alone." Jay could afford to not work, he won't be bankrupt for saying no.
    He could also have admitted that his low numbers meant that folks were changing the channel and yes that hurt the local stations and might have hurt Conan. That Conan's low numbers weren't simply because he wasn't Jay Leno (who clearly doesn't have that big of a devoted following since they didn't follow him to 10pm)

  • Admittedly Biased says:

    Leno is not a monster. He's just talentless. Credit his Machiavellian agents and half decent writers for his career.
    COCO rocks!

  • Cam Girls says:

    Great post. Thanks