Jay Leno says he likes working for himself, which makes it sound like he has his own auto body shop or something. Some people might say what he does isn't work at all. He just stands around telling jokes. Sometimes he even sits.

When you're as popular as Leno is right now, you could pretty much rest on your laurels in between Monday nights on Johnny Carson, special appearances on Letterman and the occasional Dorito commercial.But Leno has a strong work ethic that makes it hard for him either to take it easy or be a prima donna. When the Deseret News caught up with him last week for a phone interview from his hotel room in Utica, N.Y., he was spending his 38th birthday doing 16 interviews, then driving to Schenectady for a concert. The next day he was going to do the same thing again in Bristol, R.I. He drives his own car and answers his own phone. This month he's doing 31 cities in 31 days.

Some years he does as many as 300 concert dates in 42 states, traveling around the country "identifying the absurd," as he puts it. He says he would rather do these personal appearances than star in his own weekly prime time network variety show.

"I like a live audience," he explains. "I suppose I should have been born during vaudeville." Appearing live before audience after audience is the only way to get good at stand-up comedy, he says. "You can't start to get lazy."

The comedian will be in Salt Lake May 13, before a live audience at the Huntsman Special Events Center at the University of Utah. Tickets for the concert, which starts at 8 p.m., are $13 ($12 for students with activity cards and for anybody bringing a Pepsi can or a Dorito bag). Opening for Leno will be Walter and Hays, a local comedy/music duo.

This is Leno's second Utah appearance, although the first one was so long ago it hardly counts. Nine years ago he was the opening act for Johnny Mathis when the singer performed in Salt Lake City. Leno was a relative unknown then, with an act that one local reviewer dismissed this way: "If he'd string together his five best jokes and two or three funniest voices, (he) would be considered clever."

Leno has obviously come a long way since then. David Letterman calls him "the funniest comedian working today" _ even funnier than Letterman, apparently.

Last fall, Leno was named permanent Monday night guest host of "The Tonight Show" _ putting him in the running as Carson's heir. He also had his own Thanksgiving special and has headlined at Carnegie Hall and Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater.

Though he seems to have burst on the scene recently, his rise has been as slow and steady as a '55 Buick, which happens to be his car of choice, and the one he slept in while trying to make it big after moving to L.A. 13 years ago.

Leno was reared in Andover, Mass., and it was in the Boston area, in sleazy strip joints and carnival midways, that he first tried to make strangers laugh. He figured he could do it because he had always been able to make his buddies laugh, even in grade school. He says his teachers frequently sent home notes complaining that he was disruptive and "fooling around again."

After he gained a following in Boston, and then New York, he moved on a whim one morning to Los Angeles, walking all the way from the airport to The Comedy Store. Slowly he became a regular at the famous club, eventually becoming friends with other struggling comedians like Letterman, who has said that he patterned much of what he did on what he saw Leno do.

The Leno delivery _ pleasant sarcasm offered up in a mixture of deadpan and incredulity _ has been copied by other, younger comedians making the rounds today. What they can't match is the Leno look _ sort of a hulking cartoon character with round eyes and an enormous chin.

His comedy is clean, as well as funny. While some comedians fuel their routines with anger, Leno's humor comes more from a sense of wonder.

On the few days a year when he isn't working at comedy, Leno likes to work on his collection of cars and antique motorcycles. He and his wife, writer Mavis Nicholson Leno, live in Beverly Hills in a house with three garages.

Like the other new kings of stand-up _ Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Chevy Chase _ he is starring in a movie. Called "Collision Course," it co-stars Pat Morita and features Leno as a detective. It was originally scheduled for a January 1988 release, but the film is tied up in litigation connected with the financial woes of the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group.

"This is why I like working for myself," says Leno.

Making movies is not Leno's favorite way to make money. You have to wait months for the laughs (or longer in the case of "Collision Course") and "I'm so used to getting immediate gratification," he says.

He is said to have turned down an offer of $300,000 up front to make a comedy album. There are no immediate laughs there either, and besides, he worries that audiences won't want to hear what they've already heard on an LP.

"People are always asking me if I think I'll still be doing this in five years. Like I'm a child pornographer or something."

He says if "Collision Course" comes out and people like it, he'd make more movies . . . but really he'd rather be doing what he'll be doing May 13 at the U.