Leno Tells Oprah He’s Not Selfish

Today, Jay Leno joined Oprah Winfrey on her daytime talk show, speaking out for the first time about Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show debacle of this past month.

Leno told Oprah that NBC’s decision to pull him from late night TV five years ago “broke his heart,” but he blamed ratings for the network’s ultimate decision to boot O’Brien in favor of him. But despite feeling “disrespected,” Leno said he chose to stay with the network as they moved him to 10 p.m. because “going to another network is a lot of work.”

“I’ve been at this network since 1984,” he added. “I’m comfortable here. I’m not someone who jumps around.”

Blaming ratings for the cancellation of his show and NBC’s desire to replace O’Brien, Leno told Oprah he wasn’t being selfish:

“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, number one, Conan, number one. 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 be an issue. But in show business, there’s always someone waiting in the wings.”

Still, Leno said he thought NBC could have handled the entire thing better, using what we think is a pretty macabre joke (although Oprah laughed):

“Anything they did would have been better than this. If they had come in and shot everybody, it would have been,’Oh people have been murdered,’ but at least it would have been a two-day story. NBC could not have handled it worse, from 2004 onward, this thing was a huge mess.”

And although he said he felt bad for O’Brien and hasn’t spoke to him since August, Leno said now he has to work to rehabilitate his image and the Tonight Show brand. Does he think he’ll ever be number one again? “The best one wins,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get my butt kicked, maybe we’ll win.”

Of course, Oprah had her opinions, too. Although she’s Team Leno, she was surprised that her viewers seemed to be so pro-Conan (voting overwhelming that Leno shouldn’t return to the Tonight Show):

“One of the reasons why I wanted to do the interview is because I’m really surprised that so many people are against you, because I think that people don’t understand the way that television works… I can understand people thinking you were selfish if you owned the show and controlled the show. It’s a little surprising to me that people think that you stole the show when in fact it wasn’t your show to steal, it’s owned by NBC.”

Although it’s clear that Leno is trying to rehab the bad image he’s ended up with at the end of all this late night mess, we think he came across as disingenuous and a little slimy. He emphasized that his staff was one reason why he needed to stay in the biz, but we felt that no matter what, Leno will never step off the television stage voluntarily.

Did you watch Oprah’s interview? What do you think of Jay Leno? We don’t plan to watch his Tonight Show, do you?

Previously: NBC Licks Wounds After Late Night Wars