The ''Tonight Show'' host talks about Arsenio, Dennis, and the battle for viewers

Here’s how impossible it is for Jay Leno to get a break: After enduring 40 days and 40 late nights of relentless, nose-pressed-against-the-TV-screen scrutiny from reporters, rivals, and millions of viewers, the new host of NBC’s Tonight Show woke up on July 21 and discovered that, finally, the searchlight was beaming down on someone else. Now the bad news: That someone else was Arsenio Hall.

Even as Jay Leno busied himself with preparations for his 42nd Tonight Show of the post-Carson era, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley was issuing a proclamation declaring July 21 Arsenio Hall Day. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hall, after attending a ceremony honoring him for paying to convert a crackhouse into a youth center, spent much of the rest of his day hurling electronic grenades at Leno. They were the latest salvos in an attack that began when Hall threatened to ”kick Jay’s ass” last April in Entertainment Weekly and escalated when he observed, of The Dennis Miller Show‘s recent cancellation, ”He should be staying and punk-ass Leno should be going.”

The night before the ceremony, Hall taped an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America to explain that his problem with Leno is ”personal” — which for Hall means it’s strictly between the two of them and about 10 million late-night viewers — then went into more detail. ”Jay and I used to be friends,” said Hall. ”Dennis and Jay used to be friends. Johnny handed over a legacy, and they never mentioned each other’s names (on Carson’s finale and Leno’s debut). Something’s wrong with someone who is always surprised about people being upset with him.”

But that day, Leno is surprised. In his underground dressing room at NBC’s Burbank studios, he shakes his head and makes a familiar palms-up, beats-me gesture. ”I understand his headline grabbing, but I don’t understand the reason for (the nastiness of) it,” he says, pushing back the cuffs of his denim shirt. ”The ‘punk-ass’ thing, how I should have been canceled? All ! right, but why? I mean, what is this attitude? He makes $12 million a year! Are his monologues worth $9 million a year more than mine? What you have here appears to be two millionaires fighting it out. It’s fine if it gets more people watching the shows, but why throw rocks at each other?”

Leno insists he won’t get dragged into a war of words with Hall: ”I haven’t said anything nasty about him, nor will I. I don’t dislike him. I’ve called him, although I realize no one’s going to call me back.” But his patience may be wearing thin. ”If he did it in a funny way, it would be fine,” says Leno, a little testily. ”But every time he does a joke like (the punk-ass line), I can put a real joke on the air.” With that, Leno went on vacation for the duration of NBC’s Olympics coverage, and round 1 of TV’s highest-stakes ratings war came to an end.

It began in late May, when Johnny Carson abdicated his 30-year reign and Leno, along with his executive producer and longtime manager, Helen Gorman Kushnick, began shaping a new Tonight Show. Charged by NBC with making the audience younger without alienating the Carson core, Leno and Kushnick began an aggressive campaign to turn Tonight into a showcase for youth-appeal superstars (Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Eddie Murphy have all shown up) as well as a rainbow coalition of cutting-edge performers, like the Black Crowes, Simply Red, and Blue Man Group, the kinds of acts that were formerly in the custody of The Arsenio Hall Show.

”I mean, we have black people in the audience,” says Leno. ”Yeah, it’s still predominantly white, but there are black people there, and black guests, and Hispanic guests, and a predominantly black band. Branford and I don’t do fake high fives. I don’t do this ‘My man!’ stuff. But my proudest thing is that the show crosses all racial lines. It looks like what America looks like.”

It also looks like The Arsenio Hall Show, which may partly explain the ferocity of the hosts’ turf war. With the music industry increasingly aware that a band’s appearance on The Tonight Show can spur record sales, Tonight is cutting into Hall’s territory. The clash may be exacerbated by the fact that Tonight coproducer Bill Royce, who books many of the music acts, left Hall’s show in the spring to take the job. Competition to get guests first and exclusively has become fierce, and recently staffers for both Hall and Dennis Miller have charged Tonight with trying to snatch celebrities who were already scheduled to appear on their shows and issuing an it’s-us-or-them ultimatum to prospective guests.

”Whoever started the idea that this was a war is not being realistic about this business,” replies Tonight‘s Kushnick. ”It’s just the kind of competition that goes on between the morning shows or Oprah and Phil.”

War or not, the competition quickly claimed a casualty: Miller, whose syndicated talk show premiered last January, was canceled on July 17. After pointedly offering to ”release all my delegates to Arsenio and David Letterman,” Miller made his farewell appearance-on Hall’s show.

”The booking wars exist, that’s all I can say,” Miller told Entertainment Weekly. “I have no agenda-I’m not on late-night TV anymore. But for them to say it doesn’t exist-well, I was privy to the whole schematic. It exists in spades.

”Look, I don’t even know Arsenio Hall that well,” he continues. ”I’ve met him twice. But he’s a legitimate human being who doesn’t bulls— you. He’s been nothing but classy with me. He’s now somebody I want to be better friends with.” And Leno? ”Jay and I were very good friends at one point,” responds Miller coolly. ”I don’t think I’d talk to him again, nor would he want to talk to me. About The Tonight Show, put it this way: They want to win really badly.”

”Dennis Miller is a good joke writer,” says Leno. ”The fault of his show was that it wasn’t very well produced. But to accuse us of all these things! We weren’t keeping people off their show. Do we say to guests, ‘We’ll give you this and that, we have a bigger audience, we’ll fly you in, we’ll pick you up in a limo’? Yeah. But please! That’s the game!”

Still, the game, as played by The Tonight Show, seems to have alienated an awful lot of people. In addition to Hall and Miller, Leno can cross Doc Severinsen off his Christmas-card list; Severinsen was recently quoted in USA Today as calling the new Tonight team a ”bunch of screwballs. Jay Leno is running around trying to figure out ‘How can I get them to like me?’ Frankly, I haven’t seen anything that makes me want to stay tuned in.” In addition, there are apparent strains in the relationship between The Tonight Show and its NBC companion Late Night With David Letterman, probably dating back to Letterman’s public disgust when he was passed over as Carson’s replacement.

”I called Morty (Late Night‘s co-executive producer, Robert Morton) about six months ago and said, ‘Let’s get talking so there’s no conflict (over guests),”’ says Kushnick, with a sad shake of her head, adding that she got no response. But that may be understandable, given speculation that when Letterman’s contract expires in April he will jump to another network or syndication. ”With Dave, I’m sorry that this happened. But if he is going to end up being a competitor, what can I do?” she says. ”I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

If Letterman does leave the network, however, Kushnick has already told NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield that the one-hour Tonight Show could expand to 90 minutes to help fill the void. ”All I said was ‘If you need us, we can do it,”’ she says.

”That was just what we needed to hear,” says a Letterman insider dryly. ”It’s like, ‘Here’s your hat-what’s your hurry?”’

Says Leno: ”Would I do (the 90 minutes) if they wanted me to? I suppose so. That would be kind of a pat on the back.”

In fact, NBC is doing a lot of back patting already. A massive ad campaign in the trade papers has emphasized Tonight’s dominance in the Nielsens among the advertiser-beloved 18- to 49-year-old audience. ”We kept more younger viewers up past their bedtime,” hollered one slogan. The Arsenio Hall Show responded with its own ad, calling Hall ”the future of late-night television” and pointing to his rising ratings.

Behind the labored spin control, the real ratings story is simply that both shows are doing fine. The Tonight Show is still No. 1; its more than 5 million nightly viewers are roughly level with Tonight‘s ratings last summer, and there have been slight gains in younger viewers. As for Hall, he has 3.5 million to 4 million viewers and seems to be gaining slowly on Leno. In other words, late-night TV is big enough for both of them. In fact, it may even be big enough to include Whoopi Goldberg, who will enter the fray with her own syndicated late-night show in September.

As for The Tonight Show itself, it’s still in transition, on screen and off. Perhaps it’s symbolic that Leno, Kushnick, and much of the staff remain in temporary quarters while new offices are being built. And for now, the show is taped on an undersize soundstage while NBC alters Carson’s old studio (”We’re just bringing it up to code,” says a network spokeswoman). Leno himself only recently moved into his permanent dressing room. ”He’s in Johnny Carson’s old one-uh-oh, am I still allowed to say that name around here?” jokes a security guard, pointing the way. In the dressing room, Leno and Kushnick discuss the night’s show, which boasts a prototypically new Tonight lineup: a big name (James Woods), a rising band (the Cages), and one this-is-not-your-father’s-Tonight Show guest: Mo’ Money’s Marlon Wayans. By all accounts, Kushnick, 46, and Leno, 42, are extremely close. She has managed Leno since 1975; Leno and his wife, Mavis, are virtual second parents to Kushnick’s daughter, Sara, 12; and Leno often uses the word we when discussing his work on the show. According to some Tonight employees, Kushnick is fiercely protective of her star and more than willing to play bad cop to Leno’s good cop-even if that makes her less than popular with some of her own staff.

”I try to hire people who are reflective of Jay,” says Kushnick. ”He has no attitude, so they have no attitude. I have a bunch of people who love coming to work,” she insists. ”The rest of it has been hard-reading things about yourself, or Jay, who is my best friend. I’m worse than he is. I take it hard.”

Indeed, Leno seems less bothered than Kushnick by the more savage reviews of his first week on the air. ”I was surprised to read that people said I seemed nervous,” says Leno. ”I was enjoying myself.” (”Nervous? Yes, I think he was,” says Kushnick in a rare moment of disagreement. ”He’d been off the air for six weeks. Sure, you saw nerves up there.”) As for Leno’s often- criticized interviews, he says he was particularly pleased with a pungent series of shows before and during the Democratic convention, including one in which he forecast the withdrawal of Ross Perot (to John McLaughlin) a week before it happened.

”I think we’re getting better at it,” Leno says. ”I do see all the movies, and I do read all the books, and I sense that people like it when I do. I can ask something that’s not in the press kit then.” In fact, the convention shows, in which he conducted witty live satellite interviews with Tom Brokaw, were so successful that The Tonight Show is going live again for the Republican convention the week of Aug. 17.

”Look, I’ve been doing this for a long time, 22 years,” says Leno. ”And I’ve got a stack of good reviews and a stack of bad ones. I mean, this is what killed Perot-his inability to pick up a newspaper and say, ‘Oh, okay! Somebody thinks I suck!’ Well, it happens. And I can take it. That’s why the job pays a lot.” And, in fact, for all the controversies surrounding Tonight, not even his rivals suggest that Leno will be toppled. ”I’m in it for the long haul,” he says. ”My career has always been like the hour hand of a clock-stare at it and it doesn’t appear to be moving, but an hour later, you’ll see progress.”

”Jay wants to work for the rest of his life,” says Kushnick. ”If they let him do it when he’s 66 or 67, he’ll do it.”

That would take Leno well into the 21st century, but right now, he’s more concerned with tonight’s Tonight. As showtime approaches, Leno, in jeans and an open shirt, strides on stage to warm up the audience. As a wave of applause washes down, he seems to relax, leaving talk of Arsenio and Dennis and Dave and the booking wars behind. At least for about 10 seconds.

A man in the audience raises his hand. ”Why does Arsenio keep saying terrible things about you?” he yells.

”Hey, welcome to show business!” Leno says, shrugging. ”What are you gonna do?”

”How do you feel about Dennis Miller getting canceled?” asks a young woman.

”What can you do?” says Leno, smiling, rolling his eyes. ”Welcome to show biz!”

Another voice. ”How do you feel about Whoopi competing with you?” And with that, Leno seems to sigh just a little. It never ends.

What can you do, Jay? Welcome to show biz.