Jay Leno Denies He ‘Deliberately Sabotaged’ Conan O’Brien To Win Back ‘Tonight Show’ Job

BURBANK, CA - SEPTEMBER 5: Talk show host Conan O'Brien appears on

Jay Leno Denies He ‘Deliberately Sabotaged’ Conan O’Brien As Tonight show host. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Jay Leno revisits some of his late-night controversies.

The comedian, 72, appeared on Club Random with Bill Maher and talked about the past drama surrounding his exit and return to Tonight show. He denied that he “deliberately sabotaged” his successor, Conan O’Brien, and admitted that he also apologized to Jimmy Kimmel about the whole thing, after flirting with a move to ABC that would have impacted Kimmel.

In 2004, NBC announced that Leno would hand over the reins of the iconic show to O’Brien five years later in 2009. But as time drew near, and Leno considered new shows on rival networks, NBC made a play to keep him, creating the new The Jay Leno Show which would lead to Tonight show. The situation was awkward with Leno not leaving, neither show doing well, and the end result was O’Brien leaving NBC and Leno returning to his Tonight show office.

“Oh, Leno is deliberately sabotaging his show to try to get it Tonight show [back],” Leno told Maher about the speculation about how it happened. “No … it doesn’t work like that. You try and do your best — and it didn’t work out.”

Leno talked about NBC suggesting that O’Brien do it Tonight show to be pushed to a later time slot, at midnight, to return Leno to his old time slot amid struggling ratings.

“I said, ‘Talk to Conan,'” he recalls. “Of course, Conan didn’t want to do that. That’s when he wrote the letter. Then they put me back in [as Tonight Show] host and we became number one again”.

Leno remained as host until 2014, when he was succeeded by Jimmy Fallon. Maher questioned why he didn’t just move to another network since NBC originally had O’Brien under contract as the new host. Leno said other networks, including Fox and ABC, tried to lure him “but I’m pretty loyal.”

Maher said, “What? [Loyal] to those a**holes who shot you in the first place?

Leno replied, “Sometimes the czar you have is better than the one you’re going to get.” Not to mention, “Then, you’ve got your old team shooting at you, too. I thought: Let’s play it out and see what happens.”

When ABC made a play to lure Leno at the time — one that would have pitted him against longtime rivals David Letterman at CBS and O’Brien at NBC — that would have been necessary Jimmy Kimmel Live! since the time slot is midnight it was moved back. Leno said he reached out to Kimmel at the time — and the whole thing eventually caused friction with Kimmel, too.

“I called Jimmy and said, ‘I’m taking offers from ABC. I don’t want to start the whole thing here… I think she said yes. [he would push back his timeslot]”, he remembers. “I said, ‘Oh, okay. We became friends. Then that didn’t happen – and it became public.”

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Air Date 1/10/08 -- Episode 3473 -- Photo: (lr) Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel during an interview with host Jay Leno on January 10, 2008 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/ NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Jimmy Kimmel during an interview with host Jay Leno in 2008. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

In hindsight, “I guess I should have called Jimmy and explained” that he was staying at NBC “but I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. I just didn’t. I thought that maybe But I think maybe he was hurt by that and I apologized to him for that.”

Kimmel spoke with Maher himself in June, sharing his side of what happened. Leno said he was a “bad driver” for O’Brien’s tonight show, setting it up for a ratings flop in an attempt for Leno to get the show back. He called Leno’s actions “diabolical.”

In Leno’s interview with Maher, he called himself a Kimmel “fan.” But he said Kimmel “has this thing somehow… It was one of those awkward situations where he was a huge Letterman guy and when Letterman didn’t get the Tonight show,” when Johnny Carson retired in 1992 and Leno took the job, “in a way it was my fault. I think he resented it and I understand that.”

As for his longtime rival Letterman, with whom he has been feuding for years, he said, NBC “had no intention of moving Dave” to Tonight show. “I remember asking [former NBC exec Jeff] Zucker, “Doesn’t Letterman Have That Job?” He said, “No,” adding, “There were a lot of executives who didn’t like Dave for whatever reason.”

Recaping Leno’s late-night spats, Maher quipped, “Sometimes I conflate it with the first Iraq war.”

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