12/25/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
Did'ja hear the one about the sweetest guy in showbiz? Everybody liked him; nobody watched him. In the battle for king of late night, that's no joke. So this year, Jay Leno got tough. An example occurred on Oct. 25, when the 45-year-old Tonight Show host described a Cagney & Lacey reunion special starring zaftig Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless as "pound for pound, the best TV movie on." The audience gasped—and guffawed. But the real turning point had come on July 10, when Leno posed the question all America wanted to ask Hugh Grant: "What the hell were you thinking?" That night, for the first time in more than 22 months of grueling head-to-head competition, The Tonight Show surged ahead of Late Show with David Letterman. Viewers who had tuned in to see Grant squirm kept coming back, and the ratings seesaw now seemed balanced, with Leno's seat firmly up. In September he captured the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series—an award Letterman won in '94.
Leno admits to being "over-reverential" in the past. "Now," he says, "I can tell Schwarzenegger, 'Arnold, you're getting a gut!' And he'll grab my head and say, 'Jay you little wimp!' " But Leno believes there's more to his comeback than the change in tone. He also returned to his roots—stand-up comedy—by having a new, more intimate club-like set built and by expanding his opening monologue. He replaced sometimes somber bandleader Branford Marsalis with the cheerier Kevin Eubanks. The O.J. Simpson trial proved a bonanza for Leno as well, with the Dancing Itos among his most popular recurring guests. "Jay turned the talk show into more of a comedy hour," says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield.
And the mean streak doesn't run very deep. Offstage, Leno is still, by all accounts, down-to-earth, friendly and remarkably ego-free. He has only three passions: Mavis, 45, his wife of 15 years; his huge collection of 30 vintage cars and 40 motorcycles; and work. His appetite for the latter is infinite. "I'm convinced Jay's an alien," says Tonight Show executive producer Debbie Vickers. "He can outlast anybody. I don't think he has red blood. I think he has green ooze." The green he is oozing is more likely money. NBC just extended his contract to the year 2000 at a reported salary of between $11 million and $14 million, compared with Letterman's $14.5 million. Leno wanted to perform 52 weeks a year, but NBC forced him to take five weeks of vacation. Don't be surprised if he spends it on a stage. "I come to work, and everybody applauds," Leno says. "My life's a vacation."