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For years, numerous Snopes readers have called our attention to a viral rumor alleging that NBC executives fired Jay Leno from his position as host of “The Tonight Show” at the request of former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Some readers’ inquiries cited passages of the below-displayed Facebook post, which claimed unidentified officials working on behalf of Obama had successfully pressured the American media network into replacing the late-night talk show host because of the nature of his comedy.
Specifically, under the post’s pretenses, the former president was supposedly upset by Leno’s jokes about him.
“[The] Obama White House had been leaning on, pressuring executives at NBC for the last two years to replace Jay Leno because the comedian was criticizing Obama every night,” the post read. “Obama didn’t like it and considered it a racist attack on him.”
The post went on to make several more claims about Obama’s presidency and Leno’s weeknight audience ratings, and also repeated purported quotes by the comedian about the former president.
For the purpose of this fact check, however, we focused on the underlying assertion: that White House officials had once pressured NBC to remove Leno from the late-night show — giving comedian Jimmy Fallon the spot — because of Leno’s criticism of Obama.
While we were unable to uncover verifiable evidence to explicitly debunk that claim, the rumor has the below-listed traits that are often indicative of false claims:
- Only one political faction was circulating the rumor.
- The post did not include, nor link to, supporting material to substantiate its assertions — and, based on our research, no such proof existed.
- If true, such a scheme by a presidential administration to coerce a major television network would have undeniably spurred investigations and coverage by reputable news outlets. That was not the case.
- The claim is attributed to anonymous “Hollywood executives” with supposedly secret information rather than an official or named source.
- The claim offers only one explanation for Leno’s departure when other, less politically motivated explanations are plausible.
‘The Johnny Carson Model’
Firstly, it was true that Leno’s opening monologues often included attacks on Obama, much like he wrote material criticizing former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush when they were in the White House.
It was also factual that Leno interrogated Obama on serious matters when the former commander-in-chief appeared on the show as a guest. (Obama was the first sitting president to appear on the program, news archives showed.)
Leno said he purposefully wrote material “to appeal to everybody”; to play the audience “like an orchestra,” according to an interview with NPR.
“You’re trying to appeal to the whole spectrum,” Leno said in another conversation with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes.” “That’s the trick, you try to have something for everybody.”
Ultimately, that joke-writing technique confused pundits on both sides of the political aisle during his time in the spotlight. The Atlantic once described Leno as “something of an enigma when it comes to politics,” while a USA Today columnist years later described him as “an admitted social liberal/fiscal conservative.”
Everyone has to know your politics. I kind of used Johnny [Carson’s] model. People couldn’t figure out. ‘Well, you and your Republican friends’ or ‘Well, Mr. Leno, you and your Democratic buddies.’ And I would get hate mail from both sides equally. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s fabulous. That’s exactly what I want.’
Obama to Leno: ‘I’m Not Upset’
POLITICO documented some of Leno’s specific comments about Obama on the show, including a reference to the repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in America, but rather in Kenya. (“These White House scandals are not going away anytime soon,” Leno said on the show. “People in Kenya are now saying he’s 100% American. That’s how bad it’s gotten.”)
In the end, however, Obama made it seem as if he was unaffected by Leno’s campaigns against him and played along. On Leno’s final show, which aired on Feb. 6, 2014, the former president appeared in a “farewell” video message alongside other celebrities and media personalities, and Obama said:
“Jay, you’ve made a whole lot of jokes about me over the years, but do not worry: I’m not upset,” Obama deadpanned, as described by POLITICO. “On a totally unrelated note, I’ve decided to make you my new ambassador to Antarctica. Hope you got a warm coat, funny man.”
Around the time of that video message, Obama spokesman Jay Carney told The Associated Press that Obama was indeed a Leno fan and enjoyed being a guest on his show.
That statement — as well as Obama’s appearance on Leno’s final show in which he explicitly said “I’m not upset” — undermined the basis of the viral rumor: that Obama did not like Leno’s jokes and, because of that, took steps to remove the comedian from his platform.
We reached out to the White House, as well as the Office of Barack and Michelle Obama, to ask if there was any truth to the claim that federal officials pressured NBC executives to replace Leno, and, if so, why. Snopes did not receive responses from either agency, but we will update this analysis if they get back to us.
But Why Did Leno Leave ‘The Tonight Show’?
There was no proof to substantiate the claim that one or more people “harrassed” the network — much less federal officials working on behalf of Obama — about the nature of Leno’s material and that those alleged interactions led to his departure.
Rather, more likely than not, the programming switch appeared to be a result of the network’s explicitly stated goal to try to keep ratings high and grow an audience — a conclusion we made based on public statements by Leno and NBC executives, as well as news archives.
Leno hosted the 11:30 p.m. (ET) weeknight show for 22 years, beginning in 1992 when he took over for comedian Johnny Carson. There was a brief period in 2009 when “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien replaced him — a change NBC negotiated years prior to try to appease Conan but, after plummeting ratings, walked back. The saga became known as the “Late Night Wars” or “2010 Tonight Show conflict,” inspiring on-air riffs and swipes at NBC executives from both O’Brien and Leno.
But in spring 2013, NBC notified fans of what would become a permanent change — that Leno, whose contract was set to expire the following year, would pass the torch to Fallon, who would leave behind NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” that had been airing every weeknight after Leno. (Seth Meyers eventually took that spot.)
According to NBC executives’ statements to journalists at the time, the network wanted to trade hosts when the show’s ratings were good (in March 2013, for example, the show hit a seven-week high in total viewers, with 3.52 million watching, CNN reported) and it started covering the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Jimmy Fallon is a unique talent and this is his time,” NBC head Steve Burke told reporters at the time.
Also, the network timed Fallon’s premiere to coincide with other big adjustments; NBC executives had recruited Veteran “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels to serve as the show’s executive producer and relocated the show’s headquarters from Burbank, California, to New York City.
History appeared to be repeating itself. Decades earlier, when Leno took over from Carson, the network used a similar strategy — it waited until ratings peaked to make the hosting switch, BBC reported.
However, unlike Leno, Carson voluntarily retired from the gig. USA Today reported:
Leno would have remained at Tonight as long as NBC would have him. Leno’s current contract expires in September 2014, but the network smoothed the way for the transition, got Leno on board, and the [Fallon and Leno] even teamed up for a jokey video that aired Monday night, suggesting there were no hard feelings.
Here’s a preview of that April 1, 2013, skit, confirming rumors of the transition:
As you can see, there appeared to be no bad blood between the two comedians. Fallon and Leno regularly did bits about the adjustment, and news stories cited a statement in which Leno, 62 at the time, explicitly congratulated his 38-year-old successor.
“I hope you’re as lucky as me and hold on to the job until you’re the old guy,” Leno said.
In multiple public statements since then, Leno expressed acceptance of NBC executives’ decision and framed it as a result of the entertainment industry’s evolving demands — nothing else. That evidence, again, discredited the theory that he was forced out because of his past comments about Obama.
For example, during his “60 Minutes” interview with Steve Kroft in early 2014, Leno said the following:
Kroft: You would have liked to have stayed?
Leno: It’s not my decision. And I think I probably would have stayed if we didn’t have — an extremely qualified, young guy ready to jump in. Sure, I probably would’ve stayed a little longer. But we have somebody very good, very talented. […]
If they said, ‘Look, you’re fired. We don’t know who we’re gonna get. We don’t know what we’re gonna put in there. But anybody but you, we just want you out of—’ I would be hurt and offended. But this makes perfect sense to me. I understand this.
Around that same time, Ellen DeGeneres interviewed Leno on her show, where he said: “Last time [with O’Brien], I was told. This time [with Fallon], I was asked.”
In other words, he said he was asked to give up the mic; he accepted that request, and he understood why NBC executives chose Fallon to replace him. Leno himself described his successor as an “extremely qualified, young guy,” whose performance style made sense for the new time.
Years later, while promoting what could be his retirement gig — a CNBC show called “Jay Leno’s Garage” — he said in the NPR interview that he believed the network had traded him for Fallon for no other reason than than their bottom lines.
To conclude our reporting, we reached out to NBC, as well as the CNBC show, to elaborate on why the network gave Leno the boot; to explain if, or to what extent, the content of Leno’s performances were the reason for his departure, and to confirm or deny the rumor about Obama officials. As of this writing, we have not received responses.
In sum, the viral Facebook post exhibited the hallmarks of a baseless conspiracy theory. But until we hear back from representatives for Obama, NBC, or Leno to explicitly debunk its assertions, we cannot authoritatively rate this claim with a traditional Snopes rating.
If we receive more information, we will update this post.