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For Jay Leno, every gig is a one-nighter. Some just last longer than others.

That attitude has carried the comedy club veteran through what has been the most tumultuous year of his career since replacing Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show."Critics pounced on him for being too lightweight to fill Carson's indelible footsteps. A bookings war over guests broke out with Arsenio Hall, resulting in the firing of executive producer Helen Kushnick, Leno's close friend and former manager. Then for months, Leno's future hung in the balance as NBC executives debated giving "The Tonight Show" to David Letterman.

Finally they decided to stick with Leno. Come August, Letterman will be a competitor on CBS.

Through it all, Leno exhibited extreme grace under fire and managed to maintain the ratings at a close-to-Carson level. Last week, dressed comfortably in faded jeans and a denim shirt, with his feet high on his desk in his Burbank, Calif., office, Leno reflected on the year.

Q: How have you grown as host of "The Tonight Show"?

A: I think the show is a lot looser. When I started the monologues they were about 41/2 minutes. Now they run 7 or 8 minutes, sometimes even 10. I don't know if it's good or bad. I guess it's good. People seem to really like it. When they track the show in the ratings, the monologue scores extremely high. I'm also more involved in every aspect of the show than I was the first few months - which I prefer, actually.

Q: How do you feel about the monologues?

A: I'm sort of proud of the fact that my show isn't bleeped. We can do a monologue, and standards and practices doesn't even show up any more, because they allow us to be our own censor. I think we're still cutting edge. Jokes about Democrats and Republicans and what goes on in Washington are far more cutting edge than homophobics or whatever kind of material other people do. Or using obscenities and bleeping them and hearing the audience go "Whoa!" while you sit at home and try to figure out what four-letter word somebody said. I mean, I don't get it.

Q: There were a couple of early criticisms of the show. One was your interviewing skills and techniques.

A: I know when I would watch tapes of the first month or two, I would catch myself looking at notes. I still check notes occasionally, but now I'm not afraid to let the show go off in whatever tangent.

The first time you do this show, and you get these major names to come on, they don't know you. They don't know whether this show is going to be successful or not. So you try to make them look as good as you can. You kind of give them the softball questions until they realize, "Hey, that was OK. Gee, he was nice to me."

Q: Another early criticism centered on the band. Some people found the music too cold. Others said the relationship between you and band leader Branford Marsalis was not a close one. Has that changed?

A: Of course it has. I mean, Branford was on with me as a guest when I was guest hosting. I was very impressed with him. I thought he would be a terrific band leader. But that was pretty much the extent of the relationship to start with.

This is a growing situation for everybody. It sort of made me laugh when the show first started. I'd get these letters: "We don't understand what the band's doing." And then a few months later people are amazed at how much better the band has gotten. No they haven't! You're used to it now. You understand the rhythm. You understand the music. And that's all.

Q: You were left twisting in the wind by NBC in their indecision over David Letterman. Is there any resentment?

A: (Laughing) No! Come on! Welcome to show business. Man, when I watch these crybabies, it's unbelievable. People whine on all these other shows: "I was treated this way; somebody said this to me." I think if you said to the average person, "Look, I'm going to give you Leno's paycheck for a week, but I'm going to call you all sorts of names, and say some nasty things about you. Will you take it?" I think most people would take it.

Q: Did you ever at any point feel that you were going to lose "The Tonight Show" to Letterman?

A: Well, I thought there was a possibility.

Q: You have said one of the most difficult things was the lack of feedback you were getting from NBC executives because they weren't saying anything - good job, bad job. How is that line of communication now?

A: (Smiling) Oh fine, now. I'm the golden boy now. (Laughs) I mean, it's fine. It's good. When it comes to this kind of thing, I have no ego. This is product, let's sit down and fix it. When I sit down with executives I say, "Look, just because I want to know how I'm doing doesn't mean I want more money. I'd just like to get feedback." And there's a real good relationship now. There's an open door here. They wander in and out. Sometimes their suggestions are good. Sometimes their suggestions are terrible.

Q: Knowing what you do now, a year later, what would you have done differently when accepting "The Tonight Show" job?

A: In hindsight, without naming names, I got some bad advice on things. And things were not handled as well as they should have been. I would have done a lot of things differently.

Q: Can you give any examples?

A: (Pause) There was a lot of friction with the other talk shows, some I was aware of, some I was honestly not aware of. I was rather disappointed that people didn't come right to me personally with problems rather than taking things to the press. All that seems to have been straightened out.

Q: You're very respectful to the people around you.

A: One of the first rules is that if you don't treat people with the respect they deserve, then you find that odd phenomenon of people who don't mind going down as long as they can bring you with them. That's what happens. I see it in show business and on other top-rated shows.

Q: You're frequently characterized as a very decent person. Sometimes, especially in Hollywood, being called nice is a backhanded compliment. How do you like being known as Hollywood's nice guy?

A: I kind of laugh because people tell me, "You're too nice. You going to get screwed." And I say, "Well, I'm here, aren't I?" I mean, I'm hosting "The Tonight Show." How much bigger can you get? I held on to the job. We're the No. 1 talk show. We have the highest demographics in our time period, blah, blah, blah. So what's wrong with being nice?

Q: Are you enjoying the job, or has it become routine?

A: I love this job. It's a lot of fun. People say to me, "Oh, it must be this tremendous pressure." It's no pressure at all. It's time consuming. That's all it is. We turn out jokes all day long, and people say, "Oh, you can't keep that up." But the monologues have gotten longer and better, not shorter.

Except for my cars and motorcycles, I don't have any necessary pastimes. I'm not someone who says, "Oh, I need two weeks off." I don't want to go to Hawaii. I like this.