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."