LOS ANGELES " Jimmy Kimmel can joke about how his late-night job might be affected when Jay Leno becomes a free agent " at least when his ABC boss and hundreds of reporters are around.
A comedy bit involving Kimmel and ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson drew laughs Wednesday from the Television Critics Association, but McPherson acknowledged ABC's possible interest in Leno after he turns NBC's "Tonight" over to Conan O'Brien in 2009.
"I can't believe they're (NBC) going to let this guy go at the top of his game," McPherson said. "If that happens, we'll look at it at the time and Jimmy will be involved in those discussions."
McPherson was careful, however, to praise the comedian and his show, "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
ABC had just opened a Q&A session among McPherson and reporters when Kimmel, who stood among the press corps and introduced himself as a newspaper reporter from Sarasota, Fla., popped off.
"There are rumors that ABC is actively courting Jay Leno for 11:30 p.m. Is there any truth to those rumors?" Kimmel said, quickly following that with a question about how McPherson's name was pronounced.
Kimmel kept going: If Leno came to ABC, "If anything were, God forbid, to happen ... would Ted Koppel get fired, or how would that work?" he asked, referring to the former host of ABC's news show "Nightline," which precedes Kimmel's 12:05 a.m. show.
ABC took heat in 2002 when it made an unsuccessful bid to woo David Letterman to its late-night lineup, a move that would have displaced "Nightline" and the respected Koppel. He left the news show in 2005 after 25 years as host.
McPherson played along with Kimmel: "It would be doomsday for Ted."
"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?" Kimmel asked.
Then, after tweaking McPherson about his carefully groomed hair, Kimmel threw out the final punch lines: "Are you at all afraid that if you do replace Jimmy Kimmel he might do something crazy to you or your car?"
"I'll be out in the parking lot," he said.
McPherson, explaining to reporters that "we wanted to have a little fun" with the issue, then gave Kimmel a vote of confidence.
"His show has just exploded this year. He's done an amazing job. ... This show creatively is firing on all cylinders and we're hugely supportive of it," McPherson said.
NBC, hoping for a smooth transition at "Tonight," put plans for Leno's departure from "Tonight" in place in 2004 and have talked of finding another role for him at the network.
But with Leno still riding high in the ratings, networks and syndicators are poised to woo him when he's free to open contract talks.
Jimmy Fallon is set to fill O'Brien's chair at NBC's "Late Night."