“That doesn’t work,” Leno explained. “It doesn’t work that way. You try and do the best you can and it didn’t work.”
In May 2009, Leno said goodbye to The Tonight Show and began hosting The Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. on NBC. However, when ratings for both shows declined, he returned as host of The Tonight Show in 2010.
The switcheroo prompted O’Brien to leave the network, where he’d been employed since 1993, to host Conan on TBS.
Leno also defended his decision to stay at NBC rather than move to a different network amid the controversy.
“Sometimes the czar you have is better than the one you’re going to,” he told Maher, 66. “Then you have your old team shooting at you as well. I just figured let’s just play this out and see what happens. This all happened fairly quickly.”
Leno added that at the time he considered joining ABC, the home of Jimmy Kimmel Live, and even called Jimmy Kimmel himself to discuss it. However, he never followed up with him after deciding to stay at NBC.
“I suppose I should have called Jimmy and explained to him again, but I didn’t,” he said. “I don’t know why I didn’t. I just didn’t. I thought he probably would figure it out. But I think maybe he was hurt by that, and I apologized to him for that.”
Leno left The Tonight Show for good in February 2014, and Jimmy Fallon stepped in as his successor. He now hosts the syndicated game show You Bet Your Life with his former Tonight Show band leader Kevin Eubanks.
O’Brien addressed the controversy over Leno returning to The Tonight Show in a 2010 interview with 60 Minutes.
“He went and took that show back and I think in a similar situation, if roles had been reversed, I know — I know me, I wouldn’t have done that,” O’Brien said at the time.
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In the interview, the comedian noted he would not have “surrendered The Tonight Show and handed it over to somebody publicly and wished them well — and then … six months later [reclaimed it]. But that’s me, you know.”
O’Brien added that, if he had been in Leno’s shoes, he would’ve “done something else, go someplace else.”