NEW YORK - Certainly Jay Leno would love to wake up to find that the last six months was just a nightmare.
That way, he'd be preparing another "Tonight" show monologue, not going on the national shrink's sofa across from Oprah Winfrey, as he was Thursday. He wouldn't have seen a photo of himself doctored to look battered on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, symbolizing television's biggest flop ever. And he wouldn't have heard the rough jokes with the serious subtext that he had sandbagged Conan O'Brien.
NBC is hoping that it all goes away, too. The network won't know until March 1 whether he's been permanently damaged or not by the disastrous decision to try him in prime time and the clumsy way he recovered his old job. March 1 is when Leno returns to late night, opposite David Letterman on CBS.
"He's going to be competitive and I think his audience is going to come back over time," says Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal Entertainment chairman.
During his Winfrey appearance, Leno said he was devastated when NBC executives asked him to leave the "Tonight" show because they wanted to give the show to O'Brien. He said he told "a white lie on the air" when he said he was going to retire because he assumed he would find another job in show business.
He said he felt "really bad" for O'Brien, whom he hasn't talked with. "I think it's unfair, but TV is not fair," Leno said.
"Anything (NBC) did would have been better than this," Leno said. "Anything. Anything they did. If they had come in and shot everybody, I mean, it would have been 'Oh, people were murdered,' but at least it would have been a two-day story. NBC could not have handled it worse. From 2004 onward this whole thing was a huge, huge mess."
Except for the Winfrey interview, Leno will do little talking after his 10 p.m. EST show ends Feb. 9, making way for coverage of the Winter Olympics. NBC will promote his return to late night but in a low-key fashion since it's been only a few months that it hyped his prime time show, Gaspin said.
"We're going to do it with a little humour and we're going to do it with a little wink to the audience," he said. "We know they know what's going on."
The 10 p.m. show, cancelled because affiliates complained about its low ratings, instantly transformed Leno's public image into that of a failure after a 15-year run as the king of late-night television.
Meanwhile, his "Tonight" show successor, Conan O'Brien, despite being a ratings failure himself, became a folk hero when he wouldn't accept NBC's plan to move his "Tonight" show to 12:05 a.m. EST to accommodate Leno's shortened comedy program. Leno has been vilified for taking back a job he plainly didn't want to leave in the first place, despite promising more than five years ago that he would.
Jimmy Kimmel, in a brutal appearance on Leno's own show, was asked about the best prank he had ever pulled and said: "I told a guy that five years from now, I'm going to give you my show. And then when the five years came, I gave it to him. And then I took it back almost instantly. I think he works at Fox or something now."
Critic Aaron Barnhart said Leno was half-cockroach, half-cicada, who "would do and say anything to keep his famous chin in front of the cameras." Comic writer Joe Queenan, in The Wall Street Journal, compared the late-night situation to Europe in the 1930s. Leno, he wrote, "much like Adolf Hitler, is a master at making secret demands for foreign territory and then acting like the wronged party."
It's satire, yes. But Adolf Hitler?
"Unfortunately, it got a little nasty," Gaspin said. "But I also think it was short-lived. It was of the moment and it ratcheted up and it also ratcheted down pretty quickly as well."
Leno said he always felt he was doing the right thing, but wondered "how can you do the right thing and have it go so wrong?"
"I had a show," he said. "My show got cancelled. They weren't happy with the other guy's show. They said we want you to go back. I said OK. And this seemed to make a lot of people upset. And I go, 'Well, who wouldn't take that job?"'
He said it was agonizing. "I would spend a lot of time just thinking about it, going, 'I think I'm a good guy. Am I not a good guy?"'
While Leno was in prime time, longtime rival Letterman took over as the most popular late-night comic. That crown might not be so easy to reclaim, said David Bianculli, who teaches a course in late-night television at Rowan University and is author of a new book on the Smothers Brothers.
Bianculli said he hears predictions from many in the industry that Leno's late-night audience, after an initial burst due to curiosity, will settle in at between 10 per cent to 20 per cent below what he had been averaging before leaving last spring.
"Once he goes away and people find other places to go and other people to watch, I don't know if they're going to come back," he said.
The size of Leno's audience was virtually identical in both time slots: 5.3 million on average at 10 p.m. and 5.2 million during his last season on "Tonight," according to the Nielsen Co. One is considered a success and another a failure because many more people are watching TV at 10 p.m.
For Leno, the unknown is whether he has a consistent, loyal audience, or if he gained new fans in prime time who might not be willing to follow him to "Tonight."
Even though he believes Leno's actions were "despicable," Barnhart said Leno's reputation would not suffer.
"Most people, at the end of the day, they want to laugh," said Barnhart, founder of the TV Barn Web site and a late-night expert, "and nobody delivers (laughs) at a higher volume than Jay Leno does. He's not Michelangelo out there. He's more like Jerry Bruckheimer, shooting off the hits and following a close formula. He's very good at what he does."
While Leno, who turns 60 in April, draws a larger audience than O'Brien, his audience is older - and that's not considered a good thing in television. Barnhart wonders whether, in five more years, NBC might regret essentially choosing Leno over O'Brien.
Tim Brooks, a former Lifetime executive and author of "The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network and Cable Television," said he's been in enough focus group meetings to know that ultimately viewers just want to be entertained.
The latest late-night skirmish, while entertaining in itself, is ultimately rich people arguing over money, he said.
"It probably won't even be a bad dream," Brooks said. "It will be a dream you can't remember when you wake up."
- With files from Caryn Rousseau in Chicago.