SOMEWHERE THEY'RE LINING UP THE skyrockets right now. In two weeks—Aug. 30, to be exact—the media fireworks will start. LENO vs. LETTERMAN! Late night's Kings of Comedy go head-to-head in a winner-take-all match! Not since the Thrilla in Manila! Not since Marky Mark vs. Madonna! Booking agents battle over Charles Nelson Reilly!

Indeed, the upcoming ratings contest between Jay Leno's The Tonight Show and David Letterman's new CBS entry, Late Show, has all the makings of a savage battle royale, except for one critical element: Leno refuses to get frantic. "It's the American way," he says, settling into the overstuffed couch of his 12-room, stone-and-shingle Beverly Hills home. "Competition. It improves the product—what's my incentive if I'm No. 1 and the only one out there?" Besides, he adds, "no matter what happens, it's not like anyone is going to walk away broken or decimated."

If that seems like a stunningly sensible assessment, it may be because Leno, 43, has had the kind of year that puts life into clear perspective. Professionally he has weathered unflattering comparisons with Johnny Carson, Arsenio Hall's threat to "kick his ass" (he didn't), and a much publicized, personally painful split with his now ex-manager (and former Tonight Show executive producer) Helen Kushnick. His response to problems—focus on the show, don't whine or blame others—seems to be paying off. A year and three months after taking over, his ratings are at a level consistent with Johnny Carson's.

While that is gratifying, Leno also knows that showbiz is fickle—and that other things in life are much more important. On the night of July 5, after delivering his opening monologue one-liners, Leno stepped out of character for a moment and described what he called "the worst week of my life." He talked about his 82-year-old mother, Catherine, who died June 26 of cancer. "I count among my friends people like Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Johnny Carson and comedians David Letterman, Carol Burnett," Leno told his viewers as he held back tears. "But, you know, none of them could make me laugh the way she did. I really did lose the best friend I ever had."

This eulogy marked the quiet conclusion of a six-month fight to save his mom's life. "It was rough," says Leno. "From January to June, Mom was so sick." He had moved Catherine and Angelo, 82, her husband of 57 years, from Andover, Mass., where he was raised, to Florida to pass the winter. Within weeks, though, Catherine's health crumbled. "I was talking to doctors on the phone every day, lining up nurses and all that stuff, at the same time trying to write a show. Sometimes during commercials I'd be making phone calls, making sure everything was all right." He flew out on weekends to visit them in Andover (they had returned there). In fact he was airborne, heading East, when she died at home following surgery.

Although Leno placed his mom in the comedy pantheon in his brief Tonight Show speech, he stresses that she was no quipster. That trait belongs to his Italian father, a retired insurance executive. Catherine Leno—an unassuming, shy woman who emigrated from Scotland as a young girl—had a sweet befuddlement that he has compared to Gracie Allen's. "We'd have these discussions," he says, "where everything would be mixed up and turned around."

For instance, when he made the cover of TIME magazine in 1992, his mother was sure it was only for the Massachusetts edition. "They put you on the cover in our area because they knew you're from here," she said. On another occasion he told her he was having General Schwarzkopf as a guest. "Oh, he's really good," she said. "I really liked him in those Terminator movies." And then there was the time he mentioned that Sylvester Stallone made $10 million for 12 weeks of work. "All she could say," says Leno, "was 'Well, gee, what about the other 40 weeks?' "

Leno makes his millions too, but like his mother he could never conceive of an extended vacation. "I think he's helped by how busy the show keeps him," says Mavis, 47, his wife of 13 years. He also makes sure to call his father every day just to chat. Of course, mournful thoughts still intrude. In the weeks following his on-air tribute to her, says Mavis, Catherine's death "would periodically catch him anew, and he'd get a bit despondent."

Not for long, though. Leno finds solace, he says, in the fact that his mother survived to see his success. "My biggest fear was always that something would happen to my parents before I even got a chance to establish myself," he says. "My mom got to see me at Carnegie Hall and Vegas." Sometimes she got to hear about herself too in her son's stand-up act or interviews. It didn't bother her a bit. "Every time he pokes fun," she once said, "that means he's thinking of me."

TOM GLIATTO
JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles

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  • Johnny Dodd.