Late-night talk show fans are likely aware of the battle for The Tonight Show between Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien more than a decade ago. What you may not know is that Jimmy Kimmel was also part of that fight, and Leno has revealed that he apologized personally to him for his role in the scuffle. During an appearance on Bill Maher’s Club Random podcast, Leno dropped a number of stories from his iconic career, and his role in the “War for Late Night.” He talked about how he had to apologize to Kimmel for slighting him back in 2008.
While discussing the events with Bill Maher, Leno revealed that when he decided to stay with NBC, he never called Jimmy Kimmel back to inform him that he wasn’t coming to ABC. Kimmel took that personally, saying publicly that Leno never called to smooth things over. “I suppose I should have called Jimmy and explained to him again, but I didn’t,” Leno 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,” he said. Leno, however, did not provide details of their conversation.
After Johnny Carson retired as host of The Tonight Show in 1992, Jay Leno replaced him as host and led the show until 2009, when Conan O’Brien took over. Even though Leno pulled in strong ratings, NBC wanted to appeal to a younger audience, so for years, the network encouraged Leno to retire. However, Leno wanted to continue to host a show, and in 2008, he spoke with ABC about hosting a show just after the local news ended, replacing Nightline.
Jimmy Kimmel already had a talk show on ABC, which premiered in 2003 and aired after Nightline. Although Jimmy Kimmel Live! pulled in solid ratings, Jay Leno spoke with Kimmel in 2008 about a possible move to ABC. Kimmel supported the idea, thinking having Leno as a stronger lead-in would boost his ratings. NBC execs, who botched the transition from Leno to O’Brien in every possible way, suddenly realized they couldn’t lose Leno. They offered him what was essentially a prime-time version of The Tonight Show, titled The Jay Leno Show, which aired before the local news.
Jay Leno theorized that Kimmel, a friend, and fan of David Letterman, was already upset that NBC picked him over Letterman as Carson’s replacement. Leno stated that NBC never intended to give Letterman The Tonight Show, so any resentment Kimmel had against him was misplaced. The situation was exacerbated when Leno never called him back to tell him he wasn’t joining him at ABC.
In a well-documented series of events, neither The Jay Leno Show nor The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien did well in the ratings. Conan would eventually leave The Tonight Show in January of 2010, and Leno would return as host until 2014 when he retired for good. Jimmy Kimmel is now the longest-serving host of a late-night talk show, although Jimmy Fallon often wins the ratings war as the current host of The Tonight Show. Looking back on the events, Jay Leno has some regrets, realizing his eagerness to stay with NBC did O’Brien no favors, although he said he never intended to sabotage his show. Leno has another hit as host of the syndicated You Bet Your Life, and is appearing in a new biopic about The Beatles.