January 19, 2010 / 7:58 AM / 8 years ago

Leno gives his side as O'Brien's exit deal delayed

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - As a final signoff on the settlement sealing Conan O’Brien’s exit from “The Tonight Show” was pushed by another day, Jay Leno on Monday gave his side of the story of NBC’s late-night turmoil, and fans of O’Brien braved the rain to rally support.

Host Jay Leno gestures during a panel at the Television Critics Association Cable summer press tour in Pasadena, California in this August 5, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

O’Brien’s settlement with NBC might be worth more than previously thought, up to $45 million-$50 million, when severance packages for “Tonight Show” staff are included. It will allow O’Brien to join another network, possibly Fox, in September.

Leno, O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” predecessor, told viewers of his recently canceled “Jay Leno Show” on Monday that “we might have an answer for you tomorrow” on his expected return to “Tonight.”

While he had joked about NBC’s late-night woes, Leno, a frequent target of a barbs from fellow comedians who blame him for pushing O’Brien out by agreeing to return to late-night, had not seriously addressed the events of the past few weeks until Monday.

He started off with the infamous 2004 decision by NBC brass to set a 2009 date for him to pass the “Tonight” baton to O’Brien despite being the late-night ratings king. He agreed to retire “just to avoid what happened the last time,” referring to NBC’s previous late-night shake-up when the network picked him over David Letterman in 1992.

Leno said he twice asked NBC to be released from his contract: once in 2009, when he was forced out of “Tonight” to accommodate O’Brien, and once this year, when his primetime show was canceled.

NBC turned down his request both times, first offering him a primetime show and then a half-hour show at 11:35 p.m.

He accepted both times, the first time despite the fact a 10 p.m. talk show “didn’t seem like a good idea at the time,” and the second time after NBC brass assured him that O’Brien would agree to the “Tonight’ move to 12:05 p.m., Leno said.

Throughout his address, Leno stressed twice the fact that O’Brien relies on a team of high-powered representatives, while he doesn’t have an agent and manager. He also twice lauded O’Brien, calling him a “gentleman” and “a good guy.”

“I have no animosity toward him,” Leno said. “This is all business. If you don’t get the ratings, they take you off the air.”

The 300-plus die-hard O’Brien fans who lined Lankershim Boulevard in front of Universal Studios earlier in the day were not as civil, mixing anti-Leno chants with slogans in support of O’Brien.

“Tonight Show” trombonist Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg drove by in glass box on the back of a truck. The culmination came when O’Brien ran down Lankershim, creating a ruckus. He later waved at the crowd from the rooftop, and his staff treated the drenched fans with free pizza.

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