HIS TV show has out-rated the competition for more than a decade, his frequent stand-up appearances in Vegas are surefire sell-outs and his public persona is that of an affable middle-aged, scandal-free classic car nut.
So why can't Jay Leno get any respect from the powers-that-be in the entertainment media who routinely leave him off best-of lists?
For his part, Leno doesn't know or, so he says, care.
"It's not my problem; I don't worry about it," the 58-year-old "Tonight Show" host insists. "For this kind of money, just shaddup. I learned a long time ago you can't get the whole room when you're on TV."
Leno instead focuses on his work, which this week includes a hastily scheduled show at the Mirage on Friday to benefit flood victims in the Midwest. (Another show was slated to happen this last Wednesday.)
"It seems like a good way to raise money, and you can raise a couple hundred grand fairly quickly," he says. "In other cities, you'd have to rent a hall, print up tickets, and the amount of money you would be able to give would be decreased significantly by your expenses. In this case, I call the Mirage and I say, 'Hey, can I get the showroom to do a couple of shows?' You keep the expenses almost to zero; nobody makes a dime."
Leno faces an uncertain future, due to depart from "The Tonight Show" next year despite dominating in the ratings and clearly still reveling in the gig. He isn't sure what comes next or even what sort of final-night show he might do to rival the emotional Bette Midler-serenaded 1992 departure of predecessor Johnny Carson.
Leno says he hasn't given that moment much thought but hinted at how it might turn out. "There are only about 18 in the whole world who make a difference, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Gov. Schwarzenegger," he ruminates.
Schwarzenegger, of course, is responsible for one of Leno's show highlights -- the actor's 2003 declaration he'd run for governor.
Leno admitted he finds the use of shows like his to make such important announcements strange.
"I do think it's weird, but that's OK," Leno says. "The odd thing about this job is that you have a lot of power until you try to use it. And then you have none. This is not a bully pulpit. You just have people on. I don't think anybody can figure out my political affiliations."
Indeed, he believes he mocks presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain equally, although humor at Obama's expense can be a racial minefield. During the Obama-Hillary Clinton contest, he made a joke about how voters had to choose between a black man and a white woman. The punch line: "You know, that's a decision Michael Jackson makes every morning of his life."
"You could feel the tension," Leno says of starting that quip. "But then people laugh, somewhat because it's funny and somewhat because they're relieved" that it's not a racial joke.
Leno avoids being openly partisan -- he's a registered independent.
"Every time I think I'm a Democrat, they do something stupid, and every time I think I'm a Republican, they do something greedy," he says.
WHERE: The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd S., Las Vegas
WHEN: Benefit show at 10 p.m. Friday; regular show dates include July 11-12, 25-26, Aug. 8-9.
PRICE: $90 for benefit tickets, $99 for regular shows
INFO: (800) 963-9634, mirage.com