BURBANK, Calif. — Next week, Jay Leno slips the keys into the California house that Johnny Carson built and locks up. Despite a few landlord issues during his 22-year occupancy of The Tonight Show, he's kept the place in tiptop shape, which explains the smile.
"We've been No. 1, and we're leaving No. 1, and I feel good about that," Leno says backstage after wrapping yet another Tonight Show, a run that ends Feb. 6. Jimmy Fallon kicks off in New York on Feb. 17.
"People say, 'You could have gotten another couple of years,' but I don't know, then it becomes diminishing returns," he says. "This feels right this time."
Leno's ease has much to do with his palpable affection for his successor.
"I like Jimmy," says Leno, 63, adding that the two often send pizzas to each other. "There's a genuine generation gap — I could be his dad. But Johnny was 36 when he took over, and Jimmy's still in his 30s (39). That's a huge shift, and that's the shift that should be going on. Go all the way back, then bring it all the way forward."
As for what's next, Leno isn't showing his cards, except to insist that he won't become a couch potato. Stand-up comedy will continue to fill his schedule; he routinely logged more than 100 dates a year while hosting the late-night franchise.
"I'm hitting the road. I've got Sarasota on the 7th, Clearwater on the 8th, Miami on the 9th," he says. "I'm not really retiring."
Leno's abiding passion beyond The Tonight Show has been collecting and restoring vintage cars. That could well be where we see his silver mane pop up next on TV, perhaps expanding his popular online video series, Jay Leno's Garage.
"We have half a billion hits online now," he says. "But I'm definitely going to do a lot more with that. There's more to do there."
NBC brass are simply leaving the door open.
"I don't want to be unrealistic, (but) there are a bunch of things I'd love him to do that we discussed in some detail," says Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. "I wouldn't do a series. It would be specials or some other kinds of shows that wouldn't be a talk show."
Leno agrees. "No, you can't re-create this. I don't want to do The Tonight Show-lite. If you come back and you're not No. 1, then it's, 'Jay sucks!'" he says with an easy laugh.
"We did this, and it worked really well, thank you."