May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

In the cluttered Burbank office where Jay Leno brainstorms most of his Tonight Show jokes, there’s a hole in the wall the size of a man’s head. Luckily, Leno’s cranium didn’t create the void; the culprit is the burgundy tufted-leather chair in which he cogitates—and leans back—14 hours a day. He has few distractions. Behind his wooden desk an old corkboard dangles from a hook. Perched atop a battered cabinet sits a 34-in. TV set. So this is the throne room of TV’s top-rated comedy king? Clad in denim shirt and jeans (“Everything Jay owns is denim,” Say his friend Arsenio Hall), Leno shrugs. “Why not? I’m used to it. It’s where I work.”

In part, anyway. Shortly before 5 p.m. each weekday, Leno, 52, changes into a Giacomo Trabalza suit and charges downstairs to the 365-seat NBC Tonight Show with Jay Leno studio. On May 25 it will be 10 years since his ballyhooed 1992 debut, when he officially took over for the revered Johnny Carson. (NBC will mark the milestone with a prime-time special April 30.) That first night, Leno bantered with Billy Crystal; since then, nearly 7,000 visitors have dented the guest chair.

Stuff happens. Leno has been bitten by a tiger cub (“Still got the scar on my leg”); needled Hugh Grant after the actor was caught with a prostitute (“What the hell were you thinking?”); played Cupid as N.Y. Giants star Jason Sehorn proposed on-air to a stunned Angie Harmon; and choked back tears interviewing John E Kennedy Jr., whose 1998 appearance Leno calls a high point. (“Ya see, I was a kid when JFK was assassinated, and I remember watching [John-John at] the funeral.”) His comic low: trying to sweep Wynonna Judd off her feet in 1993. “For some reason,” says Leno, “I thought I’d go over and pick her up [after her song]. Well, Wynonna is not a small girl, and the two of us just crashed to the floor.”

The crash and burn of his friendship with late-night rival David Letterman is a darker matter. “I haven’t spoken with Dave for eight or nine years,” says Leno. The two were quite chatty, though, in the ’80s, when Letterman’s old NBC show followed Carson’s. “I did Dave’s show 50 or 60 times. It was incredibly helpful to me,” says Leno. Perhaps too helpful. He beat Letterman for the Tonight Show job, and while Letterman now makes more money—$32 million a year to Leno’s $17 million—since 1995, Jay has ruled late night, averaging some 6 million viewers. “I’m not inclined to say I understand [the personal rift],” he says. “But it is a frustrating situation.” (Letterman declined to comment.)

On the home front, where he shares a large, antique-filled Tudor-style house in L.A. with Mavis, 55, his wife of 21 years, Leno seems more content. Arsenio Hall (a talk show rival from 1989 to 1994) remembers sitting in a Jacuzzi with Leno one night at the couple’s previous home. “She would come out and check on him,” says Hall. Then, “it’s 2 in the morning, and I’m thinking, ‘She’s up there wishing I would leave so she can rock her man’s world.’ ”

“My schedule is difficult,” says her man. “But Mavis is great.” In particular he praises his wife’s campaign against the oppression of women in Afghanistan, to which Leno has contributed $100,000. Equality is not an issue in the Leno household, where the two maintain busy, separate agendas and Leno often cooks his own steak and eats it standing at the kitchen counter. He’s a fan of marriage. “I don’t do wife jokes, because I don’t find them to be true,” he says. “I don’t find that wives nag or hate sex.”

It’s his Tonight Show routine—an 11-minute monologue drawn from the headlines—that occupies most of Leno’s days and nights. The jokes—jotted on 3-by-5 note cards by 16 staff writers and deposited in a paper plate he keeps on his desk—never stop coming. “You need them every day,” says Leno, who has not taken a sick day in 10 years. He starts working on a new monologue’ at 11 p.m., after the previous night’s taping. “Then, from 11 to 2 a.m., either from my house or from the office, I do a conference call with the staff,” he says, “and try to put as much of the monologue as possible together before bed.”

When he’s not writing gags or getting by on four hours’ sleep, the energizer funnyman can be found in his warehouse-size garage tinkering with his 160 cars and motorcycles. Each weekend, he heads to a comedy club to test-drive new material. “One night we’re leaving,” says Hall, “and Jay says, ‘You wanna grab a bite?’ Now if Eddie Murphy says this, you end up at Mr. Chow or the Sky Bar. Jay goes to a place where they sell pizza by the slice and push it through this little window. He folds his piece in half, takes four bites, and dinner is over. He says, ‘Okay, see you next Sunday.’ ”

Does Leno have the stamina to keep up this eat-and-run-and-joke existence? “I hope so,” he declares, heading back to his office after a recent show, his 2,250th. “When I was a kid growing up in Andover, Mass., I had dyslexia,” he says. “My mother [Catherine, who died in 1993 at 82] told me that I would always have to work twice as hard as the other kids just to get the same grades. It’s the same now. I’m not better than anybody else doing this job; I just think maybe I work harder than some.” So will he still be in his office 10 years from now, widening that hole in the wall? “If they want me?” asks Leno. “Oh, yeah.”

Michael A. Upton

Pamela Warrick in Burbank

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