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Jay Leno and Letterman appear on the covers of TV Guide in 1991. / Jay Leno appears on Late Night with David Letterman in an episode that aired in the early 1980s. - Provided courtesy of Jeff Scott / TV Guide / NBC

David Letterman vs. Jay Leno: 6 facts about rivalry, 'late night wars'

12/28/2012 by Corinne Heller

David Letterman said in an interview on "Oprah's Next Chapter," set to air in January 2013, that Jay Leno, who became his longtime rival after he was made the host of NBC's "Tonight Show" instead of him, may be "the most insecure person" he has ever known.

The two met in 1975 in Los Angeles and were initially friends and colleagues -- they performed at the same clubs. Letterman began to host NBC's "Late Night" show in 1982 and had Leno appear on it. Both guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" several times, when host Johnny Carson was absent. Leno was named the permanent host of "The Tonight Show" in 1992. Letterman had expected to get the job.

Letterman left NBC and began hosting his own program, "The Late Show," which airs at the same time as "The Tonight Show." The two have competed for ratings since 1993, stopped momentarily in 2009, when Conan O'Brien succeeded Leno as the host of "The Tonight Show" for seven months, and then resumed in March 2010.

Check out six facts about the David Letterman - Jay Leno rivalry and the "late night wars":

1. Jay Leno was "able to sneak in" to "The Tonight Show." (his words)

Leno was announced as Carson's successor in June 1991 and made his debut as the new host of "The Tonight Show" in May 1992.

Leno had after the announcement told The New York Times: "I've been able to sneak in here. I didn't have NBC announcing, 'He's the funniest, wackiest guy in America.' Or telling me: 'Jay, you're weak with uneducated children between 11 and 17 so we're going to bring on the Smurfs as guests to take care of that.'"

He also told the newspaper, "Dave and I are still good friends," and noted how his career was boosted by his regular guest appearances on "Late Night" when Letterman hosted it in the 1980s.

Letterman had after the announcement issued a statement congratulating Leno, adding: "I couldn't be happier. I know he'll do a great job."

2. Johnny Carson asked David Letterman point blank what he thought about Leno getting the job.

Carson himself asked Letterman about the appointment of Leno as his successor, during the comedian's guest appearance on "The Tonight Show" in August 1991.

"Just how p---ed off are you?" he asked, to which Letterman replied, jokingly: "Let me give you a little piece of advice. You keep using language like that, you're going to find yourself out of a job."

3. David Letterman's starting salary at CBS was approximately five times as large as Jay Leno's.

In December 1992, Letterman accepted an offer from CBS to host a new late-night talk show that would run at the same time as "The Tonight Show," for $16 million a year, The New York Times reported, adding that at the time, Leno 's annual salary was $3 million. It was later revealed at a CBS news conference in July 1993 that Letterman would actually be paid $14 million a year.

The newspaper also reported that Leno, a longtime luxury and rare automobile collector, spoke at an NBC press event that month and talked about the competition between the two hosts, saying: "If two cars finish the Indianapolis 500 & the two drivers don't get out at the finish line and have a fight."

4. Jay Leno: Talk show competition would make late-night TV "more exciting."

"The Late Show with David Letterman" debuted in August 1993.

"I don't have any problem with Letterman," Leno told the Associated Press a month earlier. "He's very good. I think there's room for both shows. It'll make late-night TV more exciting."

5. The two put their differences aside -- for a top secret Super Bowl commercial created by David Letterman.

In 2010, Letterman and Leno both appeared with Winfrey in a Super Bowl ad. She is seen sitting in between them on a couch as Letterman grumbles about being at "the worst Super Bowl party ever." Leno then says: "He's just sayin' that because I'm here." Letterman then imitates Leno.

"Late Show" executive producer Rob Burnett told the Associated Press that Letterman had come up with the idea for the commercial, which promoted "The Late Show," and had written its script.

Filming took place at the "Late Show" headquarters -- the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City. Leno arrived in disguise, wearing a hoodie, sunglasses and fake mustache.

"Security was a big priority for us," Burnett said. "We really wanted to keep this under wraps. There were a lot of internal logistical conversations about how to even get Jay and Oprah into our building secretly. It was quick, it was easy. The attitude was professional and cordial. Dave and Jay were fine with each other."

6. David Letterman continued to mock his rival after NBC's Jay Leno - Conan O'Brien shakeup.

A year before the ad was filmed, Leno had left "The Tonight Show" and Conan O'Brien, who hosted Letterman's old "Late Night" series, took over to become the fifth host. After seven months and lackluster ratings, Leno was brought back.

Letterman, who has referred to his rival as 'Jay 'Big Jaw' Leno," said on "The Late Show" that O'Brien was considered for a part in the Super Bowl commercial.

"For obvious reasons, Conan was not that excited about being in the thing," he joked."

"So then we had the idea, okay, we'll get Oprah, from the previous promotion for the show, and then we'll get Jay Leno, because, you know, he can't say 'no' to anything," Letterman added. "And in our world it's a big, big deal because I've known Jay for 30, 35 years and I haven't seen him in 25, 30 years."

While O'Brien hosted "The Tonight Show," Leno had hosted a different talk series, "The Jay Leno Show," on NBC. It was also not a ratings success. Network executives then proposed that both programs be moved to a later time. O'Brien declined and left to host his current talk show on the cable channel TBS. Leno returned to host "The Tonight Show" in March 2010.

The new "late night war" spurred numerous jokes in the press and jabs from one of Letterman biggest fans, shock jock Howard Stern, and Jimmy Kimmel, who hosts ABC's late-night program "Jimmy Kimmel Live!."

"I was delighted by everything that happened -- except you losing your job," Letterman told O'Brien on "The Late Show" in a May 2012 interview, during which both TV hosts did a mock imitation of Leno.

Stern, who has often slammed Leno on his Sirius XM radio show, said on "Piers Morgan Tonight" in 2011: "Jay is insane and Jay is a crook. He's not fit to scrub David Letterman's feet. I don't know why he's beaten David Letterman in the ratings. It's beyond my comprehension. America must be filled with morons who at night lay in bed, the ones who are watching him, they must be in a coma."

Kimmel had appeared via satellite on "The Jay Leno Show" two months before Leno returned to "The Tonight Show" and joked about the shakeup. Leno took it in stride.

"What's the best prank you ever pulled?" Leno asked him during his "10 at 10" segment, to which Kimmel replied: ""I think the best prank I ever pulled was, 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."

"Very good," Leno said. "I gotcha."

Meanwhile, Kimmel show is set to move to the same time slot as "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show" on January 8. (Check out an interview with Jimmy Kimmel.)

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