While many networks have a late night talk show or two that compete against each other, the men behind them have built something of a little fraternity together. They publicly support each other when a new one starts out, and they often say goodbye when one of them leaves. So some were a little surprised when David Letterman recently made his exit and the other titan of the era, Jay Leno, was nowhere to be seen. It turns out the reason for Leno’s absence was simple. Letterman bailed on him first.
In an interview with Adweek, Leno says he asked Letterman to make an appearance when his run on The Tonight Show ended, but the man once spurned by NBC declined. So when Letterman asked him for the same thing, he didn’t feel too bad about saying no.
Well, I asked Dave to do a 10-second tape for us [when I left]. Anything, just, ‘Leno who?’ They said no, they didn't want to do it. Well, why am I going to run all the way to New York? I mean, quid pro quo. I just said, ‘No, that's kind of silly.’
The saga of Letterman and Leno is the stuff of tell-all books and made-for-TV movies. Letterman was originally promised the Tonight Show chair when Johnny Carson left, but it was instead given to Leno. Letterman then left NBC for CBS and competed directly against Leno in what became the most heated battle for late night ratings in the history of television. While the war calmed down years ago, it’s possible there was still some bad blood there, at least on Letterman’s part, as his was the first refusal. Leno at least implies he might have been willing to do something for Letterman if he hadn’t been denied first.
What’s interesting, however, is that while Leno turned down Letterman’s request for a send off, he was perfectly willing to do it for Craig Ferguson. When the man who followed Letterman was leaving last year, Leno appeared on his final show. Although to touch upon one of Leno's points, Ferguson’s show was taped in Los Angeles, not New York, so the fact that Leno didn’t have to get on a plane may have helped. Ferguson left late night after also not getting promoted to the earlier time slot, though according to him, he doesn’t actually care.
You could look at Leno’s refusal as petty, but at the same time you have to wonder why The Late Show people even asked after they refused to do the same for him. The battle for late night supremacy is now a younger man’s game, as Leno’s successor Jimmy Fallon now goes head to head with Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, who took over for Letterman last month.