Late-Night Wars: Kimmel Explains Why He Dislikes Leno

Jimmy Kimmel (left) and his late-night nemesis, Jay Leno (Photos: ABC, NBC)

Rising late-night star Jimmy Kimmel says he doesn’t like Jay Leno because of the way Leno won “The Tonight Show” back in 1992 — depriving Kimmel’s idol, David Letterman, of late-night TV’s top prize.

Kimmel, who just turned 45 on Nov. 13, has been outspoken about his lack of affection for Leno as Kimmel prepares to challenge both Leno and Letterman when “Jimmy Kimmel Live” moves to 11:35 p.m. (10:35c) on Jan. 8.

In a new interview conducted by Larry King, for King’s current show “Larry King Now,” Kimmel explained his dislike for Jay. Apparently, Kimmel has formed the opinion that Leno is ruthless when it comes to pursuing his career goals — something Kimmel doesn’t like or respect, for some reason.

“Well, for me it started with Letterman,” Kimmel told King in the interview, which you can watch here. “It started with a guy [Leno] who, at least from my standpoint, became famous on [Letterman’s old “Late Night” show on NBC] and then — I don’t know if you want to use the word ‘scheme’ or whatever … He did hide in a closet … When you’re hiding in a closet, that, to me, is an indication that you’re doing something you shouldn’t be!” Kimmel said.

Watch Kimmel play host to his idol, David Letterman, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”:
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To translate: Kimmel was referring to the fact that, back in the 1980s, Jay Leno was a frequent guest on the Letterman “Late Night” show because, at the time, Jay and Dave enjoyed a friendly relationship. Not mentioned by Jimmy, though, was the fact that Leno also appeared many, many times on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and even became Carson’s permanent Monday night guest-host, several years before taking over the job as “Tonight Show” host. As for the “hiding in a closet” comment, that referred to a famous story about Leno hiding in a closet next to an NBC conference room and eavesdropping on a meeting of network executives to try and hear what they said about him.

King’s questioning may have stemmed from the story that circulated in August, about Kimmel aiming the F-word directly at Leno during an on-stage interview of Kimmel conducted by a New York Times reporter in New York.

Here’s that story, which we broke:

Larry King then moved the Kimmel conversation to more recent history — the time in winter 2010, when Conan O’Brien lost “The Tonight Show” and Leno came back as the show’s host. As most of us remember, there was a time during the months and years leading up to Conan’s takeover of “Tonight,” that Leno was reportedly being wooed by ABC to host a show that would push Kimmel to a later time period (or off of ABC entirely).

Here’s another portion of Kimmel’s interview with David Letterman:
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“I did have a relationship with Jay where there was a good possibility he was going to come to ABC, or at least I thought there was,” Kimmel attempted to explain to King. “He definitely led me to believe there was. It turned out that there wasn’t, and you know, in retrospect, I’m very glad that wasn’t going to happen.”

OK, if we may try and translate again: Kimmel doesn’t feel friendly toward Leno because Leno is a rival who almost came to Kimmel’s network, a move which would have adversely affected Jimmy, giving him the second-tier status at ABC that Jimmy Fallon has at NBC, and Craig Ferguson has at CBS. At the same time, Leno was acting like he was Kimmel’s friend, giving Kimmel, in retrospect, another reason to dislike Jay.

Our take: We get why Kimmel doesn’t feel like a friend of Jay Leno’s. What we don’t understand is why Kimmel cares who got “The Tonight Show” 20 years ago. We also don’t get why he’s so critical of Leno’s propensity for “scheming.” Such behavior is common in workplaces all over America, and not exactly unique to the world of late-night television. Moreover, we’re pretty sure Kimmel himself is capable of the same kind of ruthlessness, if push came to shove. The same with Letterman, for that matter.

Our advice to Kimmel: Worry about your own show, and do your best to beat both Jay and Dave in the only area that really counts in the TV business, the Nielsen ratings.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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