Jay Leno denies he 'deliberately sabotaged' Conan O'Brien to win back 'Tonight Show' job

Jay Leno is revisiting some of his late-night feuds.

The comedian, 72, appeared on Club Random with Bill Maher and talked about his past drama around his exit from and return to the Tonight Show. He denied that he "deliberately sabotaged" his successor, Conan O'Brien, and admitted that he apologized to Jimmy Kimmel over the whole thing too, having flirted with a move to ABC that would have impacted Kimmel.

BURBANK, CA - SEPTEMBER 5:  Talk show host Conan O'Brien appears on
Jay Leno denies he 'deliberately sabotaged' Conan O'Brien as Tonight Show host. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

In 2004, NBC announced that Leno would hand the reins of the iconic show to O'Brien five years later, in 2009. But as the time neared, and Leno considered new shows on rival networks, NBC made a play to keep him, creating the new Jay Leno Show which would lead into the Tonight Show. The situation was awkward with Leno not leaving, neither show did well and the end result was O'Brien leaving NBC and Leno returning to his Tonight Show desk.

"'Oh, Leno deliberately sabotaged his show to try and get the Tonight Show [back],'" Leno said to Maher about speculation about how it played out. "No ... it doesn't work that way. You try and do the best you can — and it didn't work."'

Leno talked about NBC proposing to O'Brien that the Tonight Show be pushed to a later time, midnight, to give Leno his old timeslot back amid struggling ratings.

"I said, 'Talk to Conan,'" he recalled. "Of course, Conan didn't want to do that. That's when he wrote the letter. Then they put me back in [as Tonight Show] host and we became number one again."

Leno stayed on as host until 2014 when he was succeeded by Jimmy Fallon. Maher asked why he didn't just move to another network after NBC initially contracted O'Brien as the new host. Leno said other networks, including Fox and ABC, tried to lure him over "but I'm pretty loyal."

Maher said, "What? [Loyal] to these a**holes that fired you" in the first place?

Leno responded, "Sometimes the czar you have is better than the one you're gonna get." Not to mention, "Then you have your old team shooting at you as well. I figured: Let's just play this out and see what happens."

When ABC made a play to lure Leno at the time — which would have pit him against his long-time chief rival David Letterman on CBS and O'Brien on NBC — that would have necessitated Jimmy Kimmel Live! having it's midnight timeslot moved back. Leno said he reached out to Kimmel at the time — and the whole thing ultimately caused friction with Kimmel too.

"I called Jimmy and said, 'I'm getting offers from ABC. I don't want to start a whole thing here... I think he said yeah [he would push back his timeslot]," he recalled. "I said, 'Oh, OK. We became friends. Then that didn't happen — and it became public."

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Air Date 1/10/08 -- Episode 3473 -- Pictured: (l-r) Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel during an interview with host Jay Leno on January 10, 2008  (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Jimmy Kimmel during an interview with host Jay Leno in 2008. (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

In hindsight, "I suppose I should have called Jimmy and explained to him" that he was staying at NBC "but I didn't. 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."

Kimmel talked to Maher himself in June, sharing his side of what happened. He called Leno was a "bad lead-in" for O'Brien's Tonight Show, setting it up for ratings failure, in an attempt for Leno to retake the show. He called Leno's actions "diabolical."

In Leno's interview with Maher, he called himself "a fan" of Kimmel's. But he said Kimmel "has this this thing that somehow... It was one of those awkward situations where he was a huge Letterman guy and when Letterman didn't get the Tonight Show," when Johnny Carson retired in 1992 and Leno landed the job, "somehow it was my fault. I think he resented that and I get that."

As for his longtime rival Letterman, who he went head-to-head against for years, he said, NBC "had no intention of moving Dave" to the Tonight Show. "I remember asking [former NBC exec Jeff] Zucker, 'Doesn't Letterman have this job?' He said, 'No," adding, "There were a lot of executives that did not like Dave for whatever reason."

While recapping Leno's late-night feuds, Maher quipped, "I conflate this with the first Iraq war sometimes."