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Leno on 'Tonight': 15 and counting

Jay Leno of "The Tonight Show" sits on an antique firetruck in his private garage of classic cars in Burbank, Calif. Tomorrow , he celebrates his 15th year on the show. (Chris Pizzello/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

BURBANK, Calif. -- Jay Leno, marking his 15th year as host of "The Tonight Show" tomorrow, understands his role with NBC's late-night institution like a good comedian knows timing.

"Tonight" isn't his; he's just borrowing it.

"The real trick is you never really do own these shows. You try not to screw it up for the next person," Leno said. "It's like the America's Cup [ sailing trophy ] . You want to win it and you want to keep it No. 1, and when it's over you say, 'Whew, OK, your problem now.' "

The only one who could rightfully stake a claim, he said, was Johnny Carson, who presided over the NBC program for 30 years (1962-92) as its third high-profile host and the most enduring.

"Obviously, Johnny owned the show and set the tone. Steve Allen was great and Jack Paar was great, but every talk show is a variation of what Johnny did. You're always in that shadow," Leno said in an interview this week.

The late-night ratings leader isn't making a big deal of the anniversary. But he's planned a few surprises for tomorrow's show and allowed NBC to invite some media attention. The network also set up a website where viewers can create their own "Tonight" music video and promos.

In the interview, Leno was low-key about the event. He spoke just after he'd taped a show and bolted the NBC studio, as he usually does, for his vast warehouse garage a few miles away. His collection of rare and fast cars and motorcycles is stored there.

That's one of his primary passions. Others include his wife, Mavis, a human-rights activist, and "Tonight."

"That's the real key to [the show] . It's not that you can't have a life. It just needs to become your life," said Leno, 57.

The persona he's known for is eager to toil, not so eager to blow his own horn. That attitude is the legacy of his Scottish mother, Catherine, who advised that "whatever you do, don't call attention to yourself." (His late dad's contrary credo: "Whatever you do, make sure people know you're Angelo's son.")

"I always assume I'm not as bright as the next guy, so if I work a little harder I can sort of win," Leno said. "That's why it says 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,' not 'starring Jay Leno,' " he said -- that was Carson's billing.

Given how hard Leno fought to get "Tonight" and how much he puts into it, he's oddly sanguine about his announced, not-too-distant departure. He plans to surrender the show in 2009 and make way for NBC's "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien, who has Leno's endorsement.

O'Brien has "blossomed into a terrific talk show host, an extremely talented writer, a funny performer ," Leno said.

Setting an end date, he said, slams the door on a repeat of what he and his chief rival for "Tonight," David Letterman, endured as NBC dithered over filling Carson's chair.

Leno had been the sole guest host since 1987 but that didn't forestall a messy selection process and aftermath in which Letterman jumped from NBC to CBS. (There is no official guest host for Leno, who famously shies away from breaks. He let Katie Couric take over the show, once, when he filled in at "Today.")

"I don't want to see anybody go through what we went through. . . . This huge battle," Leno said. Then he hastened to add: "One thing you cannot be is bitter. It's a great ride. It's a lot of fun. Enjoy it."

Leno makes a point of noting how fortunate he is to have the job, as well as the 150-plus stand- up gigs a year that he still manages to fit into his schedule. He's equally diligent about expressing his admiration for Letterman.

"Dave's always been a gentleman. There's never, never been any bad words between us," Leno said, although he concedes each may have targeted the other in jokes.

Letterman's contract with CBS's "Late Show," signed last year, will keep him on the air through at least 2010.

Under Leno's stewardship, "Tonight" has plotted a safe and steady course. There have been changes, including a monologue that's doubled in size to about 11 minutes, more comedy bits and skits, and less time for interviews.

Critics lament that a Letterman regime would have sharpened the show's satiric edge. But the ratings have been with Leno, whose average nightly audience of 5.8 million viewers tops Letterman's by 1.6 million, and he's unapologetic about his approach.

"Hey, it's bedtime," he said. "Here's a bunch of jokes. Here's a pretty girl, here's a handsome guy. Tell you some stories. Good night."

"Tonight" still has cachet. It's been a forum for apologetic stars (most notably Hugh Grant after his arrest with a prostitute), for an actor announcing his run for California governor, and for a parade of would-be U S presidents currying voter favor.

So why leave so soon, compared to Carson? And in what will be season 17, not exactly a nice round figure?

"I'm not a big numbers guy," Leno says with a shrug. "Conan is sort of waiting in the wings for his thing. How long do you expect people to wait in the wings?"