BURBANK, Calif. — Jay Leno is a creature of habit. And for the past two decades, that habit has looked something like this.
He wakes up midmorning; heads to his 100-plus-car garage to tinker through lunch; drives a vintage vehicle to his Tonight Show parking spot; hammers out his top-rated show; returns home to his wife of 33 years, Mavis; has dinner; watches some TV; and, from 11:30 to around 2 a.m., works on the next day's monologue.
Then sleep, shower, rinse, repeat. But not for long.
"Yeah, you have a routine until you don't — that's how it works," says Leno, 63, sitting in his greenroom after hosting a show that featured Dana Carvey and Magic Johnson. "My life up until The Tonight Show was always a series of one-nighters, and this one-nighter just lasted 22 years. So it's interesting."
Leno is not what you would call an introspective navel-gazer. His blue-collar Massachusetts roots still show. The thought of kicking his heels up after putting down the reins of The Tonight Show on Feb. 6 simply makes him scrunch up that famous face.
"I'm from New England. When you retire (young), it's, 'What are you, a bum, you better than me, you can retire? You don't gotta work, but I gotta work?'" he says, laughing. "It's that New England Calvinist thing. It just doesn't seem right."
Leno may be in Hollywood, but he is not of Hollywood. As he says, Charlie Sheen is a friend, "but do I go to Charlie's parties? No. No! But every time one of Charlie's cars goes off a cliff, I find that intriguing. I don't want to push my cars off a cliff, but I enjoy observing it and commenting on it."
In fact, what he is most proud of, beyond guiding The Tonight Show to top ratings, is staying sane in the process.
"The real trick to being happy in this business is to make show business money and also lead a normal life, because then you're doing fine," he says. "You're never going to impress your Hollywood friends. But when I go home after putting a roof on my Uncle Louie's house, it's, 'Oh, the big meatball's for Jay!' I get to be a big shot."
There's every reason to believe his regular trips back home to Andover, Mass., have kept his ear keenly tuned to the masses who make up his audience. "I'm an outsider looking in, like they are," he says.
Although he admits to letting things slip sometimes.
"I will do something there that I never do in Hollywood. I'll name-drop, then go, 'Oh, why did I do that?'"
"Like, I'll say, 'Well, I was talking to Paul McCartney the other day …' And they go, 'Like you call him Paul — yeah, right.' 'Well, yes, I do,'" he says. "So it's funny. I've tried to always live in both worlds."
That's been the key to Leno's Tonight Show success, says Billy Crystal, who was Leno's first guest when he took over in 1992 and will be his last guest next week.
"Jay is always underrated, but it's a really tough job, and all the guys who do it this long are incredibly talented," he says. "I'm reminded of something Johnny Carson told me. 'There's New York, and then there's L.A. And then there's everything in between, and that's what you've got to hit.' And Jay did."
Although Leno's history with NBC has been fractious, from the coup-like drama of his ascent to Carson's throne over David Letterman to the bizarre blindsiding, as he told CBS' 60 Minutes recently, of his removal and then reinstatement over Conan O'Brienin 2010. But eventually, what history may settle on is the story of Leno as an able and hardworking custodian of a once-vaunted franchise, says Ron Simon, TV and radio curator at the Paley Center for Media.
"Leno was always very adaptable, doing what he needed to keep The Tonight Showafloat, always there and hardworking, using that middle-way of comedy to sustain a national audience," he says. "That's not easy."
Leno may well be handing off that task at the right time, considering the colossal shift in cultural habits brought on by technology, says David Bianculli, founder of the website TV Worth Watching and commentator on National Public Radio.
"I want to believe in late-night TV, but that's like believing the variety show is coming back," he says. "Teens today don't watch shows. They just wait for the two or three funny parts to show up on their phones. But what should be remembered about Jay is that once he got that show to No. 1, he never let it go."
Leno radiates that pride. Although he declines to rehash those less-pleasant debacles with late-night peers, he laughs when asked if he sleeps well at night while pondering his behavior during the upheavals.
"Yes!" he booms. Then, "Oh, please. This is show business. We're not making formaldehyde. We're not poisoning people."
Another such snort greets a question about how he views his …
"Legacy?" Leno says.
Doesn't 22 years constitute one?
"Ask any one of our interns who the star of (the '50s TV series) Gunsmoke was — that was on for 20 years, too," he says. "I'm not really one of those legacy guys. Show business is fun, and you should enjoy it. You can't really take it seriously. If you believe all the good stuff, you have to believe all the bad stuff, too."
He rubs his famous chin. "The Tonight Show is like a compliment. You just say 'Thank you.' I don't say, 'You know, I do look nice! I'm quite handsome!'" he says. "I'm a big believer in low self-esteem. The only people with high self-esteem are criminals and actors."
While Leno won't get sentimental about his place in TV history, the thought of breaking apart his backstage family does find the host growing quiet.
"I'll miss all these people. Everyone that started here never worked on TV before. It's the only job they ever had," he says.
"The last time I, ah, left, we showed the 64 kids who were born on our staff. It was a lot like Pitcairn Island (where the Mutiny on the Bounty survivors set up camp), where you sort of inter-mate. Some of the kids born were working here this year as interns, so that's kind of cool."
As for treasured Tonight Show moments, the host demurs. Too many, he says, then singles out the time he screened a movie he loved and insisted the young, unknown writers come on his show.
"When Matt (Damon) and Ben (Affleck) then won an Oscar (for 1997's Good Will Hunting), it was so fulfilling to see them grow and evolve after that," he says. "But otherwise, there are a zillion things. Everything I have, I owe to the show."
If he has laments, they are few and have more to do with aspects of the culture at large. Of particular distress to this stand-up comic is how "if a new comedian's not funny in the first 15 seconds, they're bombing. Masters like Bob Newhart would do an eight-minute bit and take a minute and a half just to set it up. That's sad."
He's also concerned that in an age that lives at the speed of Twitter, things can too easily be taken out of context.
"We had an older gentleman on the show, and he used the word 'Orientals' for Asians, because it was just what he knew — much like my father, who grew up in Harlem, said 'negro' because saying 'black' was like saying the n-word," he says. "Well, all of a sudden, our guest was being labeled a racist online. It's ridiculous."
But he's also a realist: "You can only live in the time you live in."
Leno's new time is his own. When he's not in his airplane hanger of a garage, expect to see him pop up in a town near you, still on the hunt for laughs.
"If you don't use a muscle, you begin to atrophy, and a comedian can't stand in front of a mirror and tell jokes, because you're not getting any feedback," he says. "The stage is not a natural place to be, with people just staring at you. If you don't do it every day or regularly, it becomes very unnerving and unnatural, and the slightest thing, a glass breaking, it throws you. But if you do it every day, it becomes natural. Besides, I love being out there."
And where will he be at 11:30 each night, now that a monologue won't be calling his name?
Leno leans back in his chair, cocks his head and lowers his voice.
"Well," he says. "I'm sure there are various marital obligations I'll have to fulfill."
That's a good sign-off to this story. But speaking of, what does he plan to tell viewers in his last moment of 22 years as The Tonight Show's master of ceremonies?
Leno brightens and smiles.