Jay Leno Goes Off the Air, for a Month

Donald Trump 'fires' Leno on his last show before returning to 'Tonight Show.'

ByBrian Braiker and Sheila Marikar
February 09, 2010, 6:00 AM

Feb. 9, 2010 — -- "You're fired!"

Those were among the last words ever uttered -- shouted, really -- on "The Jay Leno Show," which went dark Tuesday night. Leno had taken a satellite call from Donald Trump who said he had a message from his NBC bosses.

The gag drew laughs from the audience and Leno alike, although it wasn't entirely accurate: Leno will appear right back in his old chair as host of the network's "The Tonight Show" next month.

The show ended quietly and with little of the fanfare that accompanied Conan O'Brien's last taping as host of "The Tonight Show" just over two weeks ago. The disgruntled red-headed comedian joined Will Ferrell and a host of world-class musicians in a performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" before calling it quits.

The relative soft-spokenness of Leno's departure was perhaps quite deliberate. Variety, the show business trade paper, reported that "NBC is trying to rehab the images of both Leno and 'The Tonight Show.'"

NBC announced Jan. 7 its plan to cancel the 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" and move it to 11:35 p.m., pushing O'Brien's show to 12:05 a.m.

The move was announced after flagging ratings for the Leno show led NBC affiliates to complain that Leno was a weak lead-in to their local newscasts.

O'Brien's show, which had been on the air since June, also had achieved markedly lower ratings than those of his predecessor, Leno.

In the days following the announcement, O'Brien and Leno -- not to mention comedians at other networks -- took to the airwaves to joke about the controversial shake-up. O'Brien's bitterly comic jabs at NBC helped double his show's ratings from earlier in the year and triggered an outpouring of goodwill and popular support for the perceived underdog.

Among the guests on Leno's final show Tuesday were Ashton Kutcher, "Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe and Bob Costas. The host kicked off with a tame jab at his employer: "The show was supposed to last two years but our sentence was reduced to five months for good behavior," he joked, insisting that he never thought the 10 p.m. time slot would work.

And indeed it didn't. The finale came two days after his surprise Super Bowl commerical, in which he and his former late night rival, David Letterman, flanked Oprah Winfrey at a pseudo-Super Bowl party. Letterman spearheaded the creation of the commercial, thinking viewers would find the odd trio funny.

On his show Monday night, Leno thanked Letterman for the opportunity and said he was happy to promote "The Late Show."

"It was great to see my old friend again," Leno said. "It was wonderful. He was very gracious. We talked about the old days and we told some jokes and it was really good to see him."

(For his part, Letterman mentioned on his show Tuesday that Leno had just taped his last episode. "I wonder what he'll do now," he joked.)

At the end of January, Leno opened up to Winfrey in his first major interview about NBC's late night shake-up. He said that while he felt bad for O'Brien during the whole process, he also felt bad for himself.

"I did, I felt really bad for Conan," Leno said in an interview with Winfrey that aired on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" Jan. 28. "I think it was unfair. But it was unfair for me."

Leno contended O'Brien's exit from "The Tonight Show" wasn't his fault, saying O'Brien's low ratings damaged the franchise and spelled his end.

"It had nothing to do with me," he told Winfrey. "As I say, there is always someone waiting in the wings in this business to take your job. If you're not doing the numbers, you move on, it's that simple."

Leno also revealed that he still hasn't spoken to his former colleague.

"It didn't seem appropriate," he told Winfrey. "I don't know, let things cool down, I think we'll talk."

Remorse barely bled into Leno's musings about the ugly affair. He painted himself as a victim of TV wheeling and dealing, saying he never wanted to relinquish the show to O'Brien but was informed by the network in 2004 that O'Brien would take over in 2009.

"I was devastated," he told Winfrey. "But you know something? I was happy with what I had. ... I was going to do my best to keep it No. 1 for the next five years."

Leno admitted he was lying when he told his audience, at the close of his "Tonight Show" reign, that he would leave TV.

"I did tell a white lie on the air and said I was going to retire," he said. "I found it easier that way."

Leno said he always wanted to continue his career in showbiz. While he could've left NBC, he contended, "going to another network, boy it's a lot of work."

So he accepted NBC's offer to give him a 10 p.m. show, though he hinted that he knew "The Jay Leno Show" was destined to fail.

"You're going into uncharted territory; it's a lot more competitive," he told Winfrey. "To try and book against the 'CSI' evil twin episode, that was going to be very hard."

Asked why he thinks "The Jay Leno Show" tanked, the host's answer was simple: "It was basically a late night talk show at 10 o'clock."

He also argued that other networks refused to let their talent guest on his show because it competed with their primetime lineups.

"The unusual thing was that they actually boycotted us," Leno said. "It was a calculated effort to keep their guests off our show. [It made things] more difficult."

Leno himself became the butt of late night comics' jokes in the wake of NBC's announcement that it would take away the 11:35 p.m. time slot from O'Brien. Winfrey asked him if the widespread bashing, from Hollywood and beyond, hurt.

"It's like being a fighter and saying, 'You got punched in the head, did it hurt?' Well, yeah, but you're a fighter," Leno contended.

Now, on the verge of reclaiming "The Tonight Show" after NBC airs the Winter Olympics, Leno's not so sure he can make the show No. 1 again.

"I don't know," he said. "You work hard and you try, and it's sort of a marathon; you do the best you can."

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