LOS ANGELES, April 26 (UPI) -- He swears he didn't want to do it, but Jay Leno finally relented and agreed to a prime time special to celebrate his 10th anniversary as host of "The Tonight Show."
Leno admits he didn't even completely realize until two years ago that he's "the guy behind the desk." He was driving in his car, listening to a radio contest where the question was: "Besides Johnny Carson, who hosted the 'Tonight' show longest -- Jack Paar, Steve Allen or Jay Leno?"
The answer -- himself -- caught Leno off guard.
It might have taken that long for reality to sink in about the hosting job, but Leno can tell you every detail about his first appearance as a guest in the Carson days -- March 2, 1977. He compares the first time with Carson to a young man's first time with a woman.
"You're not very good at it and it's over real quick," he said, "but you want to do it again. I can't tell you the first girl, but I can tell you the first 'Tonight' show. That shows you where the priorities are."
Leno's anniversary special comes a little more than one week after Carson finally closed his office in Santa Monica, Calif.
Since his final "Tonight" show on May 22, 1992, Carson has remained true to his word about retiring. He has also secured all rights to the tapes of his shows, continuing to make money through DVD and videocassette sales on his Web site (johnnycarson.com).
He made headlines in 1999 when he underwent bypass surgery, but he generally avoids the spotlight. Leno said, however, that he still speaks with Carson from time to time.
"The contact I have is, a lot of times we'll have a guest, I'll call up and say can I get permission to show a piece of tape," said Leno. "Do I call him and bug him and drive him nuts? No."
NBC is reaching back to its past glory to celebrate its 75th anniversary, and other networks are also capitalizing lately on viewer interest in TV's "golden oldies." That's all right by Leno, but he thinks it might be getting out of hand.
"I personally feel we have an overabundance of these reunion shows," he said. "We're getting to the point where we're looking back to last week."
"Those guys came from a generation of performers that could do everything," he said. "Bob Hope could sing a song, do a dance. I don't know anybody, especially in 'late night,' that can do those things. I don't ever pretend to put myself in that league."
In some respects, however, Leno plays in a tougher league than the old-timers did. For example, even though they all had ratings and box-office challenges of their own, none ever had to deal with minute-by-minute ratings, currently in vogue in network programming suites.
"Here's a typical question," said Leno, "'Hey, Jay, what happened at 12:11? You really dipped there.' I say, 'Hey, the guest told a boring story.'"
The days of "Tonight" show interviews with authors and naturalists -- along with movie stars and comics -- are over.
"This is a corporation now," said Leno. "Every hour has to produce something or they try something else."