Jay Leno Offers Apology To Jimmy Kimmel Years After Confusion Over Tonight Show Fiasco

Joe drinking wine on Last Man Standing
(Image credit: Fox)

The late night talk show wars that blew up in the ‘90s are almost entirely absent these days, even if the actual ratings game remains a legitimate struggle for producers and network execs. For proof, just look at Jimmy Kimmel taking over The Tonight Show as Jimmy Fallon hit the Jimmy Kimmel Live! stage as April Fool’s pranks earlier this year. But someone who’s all too familiar with all sides of the talk show Rubik’s Cube is former NBC stalwart Jay Leno, whose so-called rivalries with David Letterman and Conan O’Brien are the stuff of TV legend. Some fans may not remember that Leno even semi-burned bridges with Kimmel during that controversial period surrounding O’Brien’s mishandled Tonight Show takeover, but it’s something that Leno is now apologizing for.

Jimmy Kimmel and Bill Maher discussed Jay Leno and that tumultuous time at NBC during a June episode of Maher’s podcast Club Random, with Kimmel reflecting on it by saying he definitely was not Team Jay, and admitted that he had a feud going at the time, though not anymore. For the latest installment of his podcast, Maher welcomed Leno himself to do a little boozing and schmoozing, and Leno provided some context and clarification for how his own in-network issues spread over to Kimmel and ABC, and actually admitted to unwittingly being in the wrong in that situation. (Though he still doesn’t take responsibility for the fallout with O’Brien.) Here’s how he worded things at the onset before really digging into his memories of how things went down:

It’s interesting because I heard Kimmel talk to you about that, and that I’d called him — and I did — and I didn’t realize I was supposed to do a follow-up call with them, so I certainly apologize for that.

When Bill Maher asked about Leno possibly jumping over to other networks, which is what the whole Jimmy Kimmel fiasco is tied to, Leno jumped back to the beginning of the entire affair, five years prior to his temporary Tonight Show hiatus, when NBC execs allegedly demanded Leno foreshadow his eventual exit at the behest of “Conan’s people.” He talked about the conversations that went into his follow-up series, The Jay Leno Show, flipping from late night to primetime, which was reportedly meant to be a cost-saver vs. expensive dramas like Law & Order: SVU. That idea failed — though Leno and his entire staff was apparently paid two years’ salary as a sign of good faith from NBC — and then the conversations returned to how Leno could fit back into the late night lineup. 

At this point, NBC bosses wanted to slot Jay Leno back in at 11:30 p.m. ET for a half-hour program that would precede The Tonight Show, which would be moved back to after midnight. (Which is what sparked Conan O’Brien’s ultimatum press release that led to him lucratively vacating NBC entirely.) And it was apparently also around this time that Leno started getting offers from other networks, specifically ABC, which inspired the car-loving comedian to reach out to Jimmy Kimmel to reportedly get his take on any possible time slot changes. Here’s how Leno put it:

I called Jimmy Kimmel, and I said, ‘I’m getting offers from ABC. I don’t want to start a whole thing here. If they’re talking putting me on at 11:30, would you want to go on at 12:30?’ I think he said yeah, he wanted to. I said, ‘Oh okay.’ We became friends. And then [the move to ABC] didn’t happen, and it became public. And I suppose I should have called Jimmy and explained to him again, but I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t, I just didn’t. I thought he’d probably figure it out, but I think maybe he was hurt by that, and I apologize to him for that.

While Jay Leno was obviously right in assuming Jimmy Kimmel would be able to read the writing on the wall eventually, it’s totally understandable why Kimmel might have felt a bit put off by all of it. From his point of view, a competitor called him up out of the blue and presented a wild game-changing situation, and then pulled a ghost maneuver and never talked about it again. Not the most normal behavior in any capacity, and it’s possible that Kimmel felt there was something underhanded and dishonest about the whole thing. (He and Bill Maher did laughingly discuss Leno being a “cunning” individual in that respect, so Kimmel is no stranger to the Tonight Show vet’s shrewdness.)

Speaking to that, in a way, here’s the overall reason why Leno says he ultimately chose to stay with NBC instead of jumping ship to a different network:

I’m pretty loyal. You know, sometimes the czar you have is better than the one you’re gonna get. 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.

In any case, neither Jimmy Kimmel nor Jay Leno seems to be holding onto extended grudges or feud mentality, so maybe fans will one day see them both popping up as guests on Club Random. Does Bill Maher even have enough weed and booze for that? Beyond that, don’t be surprised to find Leno guest-hosting on The Tonight Show every so often, as well as filling in on The Kelly Clarkson Show on occasion, even if he’ll likely never jump back in full-time.

New Club Random episodes are released every Wednesday, while both The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! air weeknights on NBC and ABC (respectively) at 11:35 p.m. ET. Head to our 2022 TV premiere schedule to see what’s hitting primetime in the months to come.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.