‘I’m Not Sure What I Did Wrong’: Jay Leno Says He Wouldn’t Change A Thing About How He Handled His Feud With David Letterman
Looking back on the Late-Night War of 1992, Jay Leno says he doesn’t regret a single move he made — probably because he won.
When the incomparable Johnny Carson stepped aside from his role as host of The Tonight Show, a crown he wore for three decades and a job that will always be linked to his name, most late-night viewers assumed that Carson’s protege, the spritely, zany, 45-years-young David Letterman would take over the most prestigious position in comedy. Most late-night viewers were wrong.
Obviously, Leno would assume the role, beginning a hosting stint that lasted 17 years and sparking a bitterness that still lives in Letterman’s heart regarding his treatment at the hands of his former network. Though both sides insist that there was no personal acrimony between them at the time, when Leno finally overtook Letterman in the ratings with a historic interview with the jovial john Hugh Grant, it felt to many like a turning point in a conflict that had been boiling for years.
Speaking to Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan earlier this week, Leno said of the 11:30 p.m. show that sparked decades of non-conflict, “The time slot belonged to NBC, and Dave had kind of pissed people off, too,” insisting that all he did to start the “feud” was to accept a job that everyone wanted. In other words, it’s not a war if Leno already won.
“You know, I love Letterman,” Leno told Brennan. “The thing I liked about it was that I got the ratings and Dave got the critics, and that seems fair. And you know something, if you flipped it, that would be okay, too. I think we both did okay in that way.”
While Leno admitted that feelings may have gotten hurt at certain points when the friendly rivalry grew antagonistic, he said that it had always been built on a foundation of mutual respect. “He and I were the perfect foil for each other. Because, any time I spent with Letterman, I always left with more material than I came in with. We would have a conversation and we’d both be laughing, and there’s no greater joy than putting something in that Letterman genuinely laughed at,” Leno recalled of their early years doing stand-up on the same circuit. “Because Letterman didn’t always find things funny.”
Despite the shared admiration, moments of pettiness between the two foes still stick with Leno. “I remember, one time, his producer called me — this is when Dave had his heart attack. They said, ‘Please don’t say anything on The Tonight Show. Just don’t mention it, don’t say anything,’” Leno recalled. “So I didn’t. And then about 10 days later (Letterman says), ‘The only one who never mentioned it is Leno.’ I said, ‘Ah, I walked into that. I was set up.’”
Nonetheless, there is still an ineffable connection of competition and appreciation underneath it all. “To this day, Letterman makes me laugh as much as anybody. Fascinating character, funny, and there’s a connection we have that I can’t describe,” Leno said of his old frenemy, though he doesn’t care to dissect their relationship any further. “It’s like sex: I don’t care how it works. It works. Just leave it. I like to make love, I don’t wanna be a gynecologist.”