TV feuds are nothing new, as competition between networks and entertainers has been around for as long as the medium has. And one of the biggest small screen rivalries of all time involved late night icons Jay Leno and David Letterman, which spawned the popular book The Late Shift (which later became a made-for-HBO film). Now that both Leno and Letterman retired from The Tonight Show and The Late Show, respectively, the dust has mostly settled, and Leno can now step back and say that he never really let Letterman's insults both him over the years. Why? Because they were funny. In his words:
I remember I had this thing where I would go into the audience and shake hands when I came out. One day, I was watching Dave, and he steps in front of this big Plexiglas wall and puts his hands through with two rubber gloves on and he's shaking hands with people. It was really funny. It was the exact opposite of what I do, and that was the joke. The one thing about Dave was, even when he was mean to me, it was funny, and that's all that matters.
Now, it's certainly possible that Jay Leno is speaking only in hindsight, and that he was extremely pissed off back whenever he saw David Letterman greeting people behind Plexiglas. But regardless, Leno can take a joke. In his Letterman-lauding post for THR honoring the former Late Show host for earning his upcoming 2017 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Leno says that if someone calls him an "asshole," that wouldn't be the kind of criticism that he would take kindly to. But that once humor gets brought into it, that makes things all the more acceptable. Cleverness always wins in my book.
Not that Jay Leno is necessarily playing down the fact that the rivalry existed, or that it wasn't as big of a deal as people made it out to be. He knows what happened and he knows how people reacted to all the stories, as well as the ones about his fallout with Conan O'Brien. But at the end of the day, those were stories about two men in similar positions within the very small circle of late night TV, and even if they were butting heads every night after primetime TV was over, each was in a place to understand the other person in a way that no one else necessarily could. Such is the case with all comedians, really, since they look at life in different ways than most people.
Here's what else Jay Leno had to say about why, even though they weren't similar in many other ways, that he and David Letterman could still see eye to eye.
The idea that there was a huge rift between me and Dave --- yeah, of course there was. I think Dave felt really sad he didn't get The Tonight Show. And our shows were very competitive. Whether it's two sports teams, or two boxers, you can trash talk each other, but it doesn't mean you don't respect each other. I think there was a mutual admiration. It's not that we have a lot in common --- we don't --- but I think that we have a mutual admiration for each other's ability to make each other laugh.
If only all the world's rivals were able to get a bird's-eye-view of a situation like that, then things might not be quite so harrowing out there. (Well, they probably still would be.) But for anyone hoping to see Jay Leno take offhanded swipes at David Letterman in the years after their late night heydays, there's only disappointment to be found. Now, let's see if Letterman's Mark Twain Prize acceptance speech offers up anything juicy.
While you can't see Jay Leno or David Letterman offering up nightly monologues anymore -- Leno will still stop by The Tonight Show from time to time, and Letterman does have a new Netflix show in the works -- you can catch a whole bunch of new and returning shows coming soon by checking out our fall TV premiere schedule.