Chris Haston, NBC
Jay Leno (in disguise) speaks to reporters at the Universal Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Late-night television hasn't been this weird in 15 years. And not just because soon-to-be-ex-"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno showed up at the TV critics press tour in disguise.

It was classic Leno — he was ripping off someone else's material. Five days after Jimmy Kimmel pretended to be a reporter at a press conference with ABC top programmers, Leno (in a fake beard and a bald cap) did the same at a press conference with NBC's top programmers.

The difference was that Kimmel was pretty funny; Leno was mostly just, well, odd.

The drama swirling around Leno is an echo of what happened in January 1993, when David Letterman turned down NBC's delayed offer for "The Tonight Show" and left for CBS.

Now, the question is — where will Leno end up once he loses his "Tonight Show" gig? And The Powers That Be at NBC insist they're following through with plans to transfer the show from Leno to Conan O'Brien next spring.

Leno's last night on "Tonight" will be Friday, May 29; Conan's first night on "Tonight" will be Monday, June 1.

NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman dodged a question about what will happen if Leno goes to ABC (after his contract expires late next year) and beats O'Brien in the ratings.

"We really believe in the decisions we've made with our partners, including Jay, and we'll really be standing by them, because we love the talent we have on NBC, and we love the franchise that we have on NBC, and we think there's opportunity for a lot of great talent to play," Silverman said.

(Huh?)

"We're not agreeing that he's going to ABC," said the other NBC Entertainment co-chairman, Marc Graboff. "We're still talking to Jay about staying within NBC Universal beyond his deal on 'The Tonight Show.' So we're not even going to concede that at this point." Silverman and Graboff took the heat for a decision they didn't make. The credit (?!?) for this one goes to their boss, NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker, who maneuvered this deal in 2004.

Fearful of losing O'Brien to CBS, Zucker signed him to a deal that promised to give him "The Tonight Show" in 2009. While the thinking was that perhaps Leno's ratings would be waning by now, they're not. He's still No. 1 at 11:30/10:30 p.m. (depending on your time zone).

And if NBC backtracks and doesn't give O'Brien "Tonight," he'll get a payout reported to be as high as $40 million.

So, Silverman and Graboff are left to grasp at straws, hoping they can find some way to keep Leno on their network. Or, at least, off someone else's network.

Meanwhile, ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson looks a little bit like the cat who ate the canary. There are widespread, undisputed reports that his network is anxious to sign Leno and go head-to-head-to-head with Letterman and O'Brien.

"I can't believe that they're going to let this guy go at the top of his game," he said. "And if that happens, I guess we'll look at it at the time."

And, he promised, "Jimmy (Kimmel) will be involved in those discussions."

The conjecture is that if ABC signs Leno, he'd be seen at 10:35 p.m. Mountain time, with Kimmel following at 11:35 p.m. (Although who knows what Utah's ABC affiliate, KTVX-Ch. 4, would do?) And it would be curtains for "Nightline."

Fox has been rumored to be interested as well. "We think Jay is great," said Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who — with a big grin on his face — didn't want to go into detail..

Hey, there have even been some (crazy) stories speculating that CBS might be interested in Leno as Letterman's successor (if Letterman decides to retire, of course).

"We love both guys," said CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler of Letterman and "Late Late Show" host Craig Ferguson. "(Letterman) does a great show, and we're very proud. So I don't know. I can't predict the future, but we're very happy with both guys. So I'm not worried."

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Funny, not funny: Jimmy Kimmel was genuinely funny when he pretended to be a reporter:

"If you were even to talk to Jay Leno, wouldn't that be like contract tampering? Wouldn't that be illegal? Couldn't you go to jail for that?" he asked his boss.

And, "Are you at all afraid that if you do replace Jimmy Kimmel, he might do something crazy to you or your car?"

But when Leno copied the schtick, it seemed much more pointed and much less funny,

"Brett Favre retired and then wanted to come back," Leno said. "The Packers said no. What do you make of that?"

Silverman's response was more honest than a lot of what he has to say to the press.

"Everyone's entitled to change their mind. But I'd imagine that puts management in an impossible situation," he said.

"Is it true you've offered Leno a fifth hour on the 'Today' show?" Leno said.

"That's a great idea, actually," Graboff said.

"No," replied Leno, "It's a crappy idea."

As was his "surprise" appearance "surprise"appearance.

And it was just sad when Leno asked, "Do you think what Jimmy Kimmel did ... do you think it was kind of cheesy coming in disguise and harassing you reporters?"

"I can't imagine anyone stooping to that level," Silverman said.

Me neither.

· · · · ·

Jimmy Fallon will take over "Late Night Nigh" in either March or April of 2009.

O'Brien will end his run on that show sometime in the first quarter of 2009, then make the move to his new studio in Universal City — not the Burbank studios where "Tonight" has originated since Johnny Carson moved to the West Coast in 1972.

(NBC, which bought Universal in 2004, is selling its Burbank property and moving its operations to Universal City.)

· · · · ·

The truth is that NBC lied to us 15 years ago. Then-NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield told us that "The Tonight Show" was never offered to Letterman, which was not true.

As it turned out, Letterman was offered the job shortly before he left NBC in 1993, but told he would have to wait until Leno's contract expired in 1994. On Johnny Carson's advice, Letterman went to CBS.

Yours truly was in the room when Littlefield lied. Which is one of the reasons I always take whatever a network adviser says with a grain of salt. ...


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com