In a detailed account of his side of the talk-show mess at NBC, Leno opened his lame-duck program Monday night seeking to set the record straight and try to repair relations with his – apparently temporary – Tonight Show successor.
"Through all of this, Conan O’Brien has been a gentleman," Leno said during the taping. "He’s a good guy. I have no animosity towards him."
For now, Leno said, it appeared that he would be returning as host of The Tonight Show at 11:35 p.m. after O'Brien apparently rejected moving to midnight.
"So that’s pretty much where we are. It looks like we might be back at 11:30," he said. "I’m not sure. I don’t know."
Leno attributed the fiasco that sparked a war-of-monologues – with David Letterman talking potshots from the sidelines at CBS – to the ill-conceived idea of replacing him on The Tonight Show consistently finished at No. 1.
He said the executives at NBC didn't think he could sustain those ratings and wanted him replaced with O'Brien, who had gotten offers from other networks.
The problem was compounded, Leno said, when he wanted then to be released from his contract to go elsewhere. NBC countered with the 10 p.m. show, which he accepted against his better judgment.
"Didn't seem like a good idea at the time," Leno said, but added he was convinced because focus groups had liked the idea and because he wanted to keep his staff employed. He also claimed he was guaranteed two years on the air.
"Four months go by, we don’t make it," he said. "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."
That's when O'Brien was offered the midnight version of The Tonight Show, Leno said.
"Next thing I see Conan has a story in the paper saying he doesn’t want to do that," said Leno. "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."