BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Bill Maher took advantage of pal Jay Leno's Television Academy Hall of Fame induction to offer a spirited attack on what Maher called undeserved "bad publicity" for the former "Tonight Show" host.
Introducing Leno at Tuesday night's ceremony, Maher said his behavior never warranted the brickbats tossed at him over Conan O'Brien's short-lived tenure as "Tonight Show" host.
"Jay Leno reminds me a little bit of Israel," Maher said. "He's not perfect, but he's held to a standard nobody is expected to live up to but him."
The media helped fan the myth that Leno "stole Conan's dream" when NBC brought Leno back to host "Tonight" after the show's ratings dropped in 2009 with O'Brien at the helm.
Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time," used an expletive to dismiss the idea that such a theft is possible, then offered himself as a tongue-in-cheek example: He claimed that Tom Cruise robbed him of the starring role in "Top Gun."
Leno's reputation among critics as a bland host compared with supposedly "edgy" predecessor Johnny Carson also is a falsehood, Maher said, and called Leno suited to his time just as Carson was when he hosted "Tonight."
After Maher's introduction, Leno's remarks proved mild. Repeating assertions he made when he ended his 22-year tenure as host in February, Leno, 63, said it was the right time to turn "Tonight" over to the younger Jimmy Fallon, who is 39.
Leno said he watches Fallon's show, and the two talk a couple of times a week.
"He's terrific. He brings a new energy," Leno said before the ceremony. "I think he was smart to take it to New York, get a different vibe or different feel."