Los Angeles -- "You know what the late-night wars are?" Jay Leno asks. "A bunch of millionaires arguing on TV in late night."
Leno is not the highest-paid millionaire on late-night TV. His $4 million a year from NBC is a far cry from the $14 million a year CBS is paying David Letterman.
But despite the perception created earlier this year that he was NBC's booby prize after the network lost Letterman, Leno is now the acknowledged king of late night. And he's riding a new wave of respect since CBS this week started telling advertisers and the world that Letterman doesn't have a chance against Leno's "Tonight Show" for at least a year because not all of the CBS affiliates are going to carry Letterman's show when it premieres.
"Sure, I feel great about it," Leno says. "It's been some year.
"The show is now stronger. The ratings are higher. All the demographics and all that blah-blah-blah is better now than it was a year ago. It's been a steady climb.
"So, yeah, I feel good right now. And I'm looking forward to all the competition this fall. I think it's going to be great. It's going to make late night the most exciting time period on TV for viewers."
Leno says he thinks the toughest competition will be from Letterman. But he's not ignoring the new Chevy Chase show on Fox, either.
"I never underestimate anybody. I have been underestimated my whole life, so I never underestimate anybody else," he says. "I like Chevy Chase. He's a funny guy.
"I hear people saying this isn't going to work or that isn't going to work.
"Hey, I don't know what's going to work. He could be a huge hit or a huge flop. Let the man come on and
do what he does."
Leno says that he and Letterman are "very friendly," and that their relationship makes a difference in how he feels about the competition on that front. "When you go against a competitor you really like and you really admire, it's fun," Leno says.
"If David was some sort of sleazeball who makes jokes that I thought were inappropriate or did material that I thought shouldn't be on television, I would be angry and I would be jealous. But he's a genuinely funny guy. He makes me laugh. . . .
"No, I don't have a problem with David. Hey, I don't even have a problem with Arsenio [Hall]. That whole thing's been blown all out proportion," he says, referring to the widely publicized dissing match that he and Hall got into last fall as they battled for guests and ratings.
Leno says none of that should be taken to mean that he's feeling complacent about the start of the new TV season. In fact, look for a new theme song, a new curtain as backdrop for his monologue, and even a new desk arriving in the next few weeks for the "Tonight Show," he says.
"Evolving. I'm supposed to say that the show's evolving. I'm told not to say the word 'change,' " Leno says, looking at the NBC executives standing off to the side of the stage watching yesterday's performance with the press.
"I remember back in November when I told NBC that if I couldn't keep the ratings up, I'd step aside," Leno says, glancing at his bosses. "I'm still here.
A5 "In terms of the fall . . . let the games begin."