Times Staff Writer

NBC had good news and bad news Wednesday.

The good was that comedian Jay Leno has signed a long-term contract with the network and may have his own prime-time comedy-variety series in the fall of 1987.

The bad was that "Miami Vice" co-star Don Johnson, seeking more money in his new contract, has missed several days of filming this week on the first episode of the hit series' third season on NBC.

NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, who announced Leno's signing and confirmed Johnson's absence, said he expected that Johnson's contract dispute would be resolved shortly.

"I don't think this is going to be a big, cataclysmic thing," he told visiting TV critics and writers at a news conference at the Century Plaza.

"I think it comes down to money issues," he added, "and I think the offer we have on the table--which has not been responded to--recognized what we feel is his worth to 'Miami Vice.' "

Tartikoff said that the show currently is shooting around Johnson, and that all other cast members have signed their contracts with the flashy, music-conscious police series.

Asked if the show might go on without Johnson should the star continue his holdout, Tartikoff said, "I don't like to speculate about that. As I said, I hope, and I'm fairly confident, that it will not get to that point."

Obviously seeking to keep the matter low-key, he said such contract disputes go on all the time and wouldn't have drawn the attention that Johnson's has had it not involved one of NBC's hottest series.

Later, John Agoglia, NBC's executive vice president for business affairs, said that Johnson's dispute actually is with Universal Studios, which produces the series for NBC, and said he hoped that it would be "resolved before the end of this week."

Tartikoff seemed visibly more comfortable announcing the exclusive signing of Leno, who has been almost a regular on NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman" and also has appeared on "Saturday Night Live" and was acclaimed for his cable-TV special "Jay Leno and the American Dream."

He said that NBC, taking a leaf from the old Hollywood studio days, will do all it can to build Leno up as a major NBC personality "for possibly (starring in) a comedy-variety series" in prime time next year.

In doing this, Tartikoff said, NBC hopes "we can once and for all crack that void that seems to exist in the field of comedy-variety," a reference to the lack of that once-popular form in today's prime-time television.

The lantern-jawed Leno, introduced to the visiting TV writers, said, "I'm going to, hopefully, use tried-and-true premises and jokes and ideas that have worked on the road and put 'em on TV."

He also said he would try to originate his comedy-variety series at times from around the country rather than having it come from the usual locations of New York and Los Angeles. He said he wants the show to have more of a universal comedy viewpoint, as opposed to that which makes the insiders of Hollywood and New York entertainment laugh.

"I think a lot of problems with a lot of television comedy is that it's not done in front of real people any more. A lot of it is inside; it's about the business of show business, which I find people in Akron and Warren, Ohio, and in theaters I've worked all over the country, really aren't all that interested in or don't seem to understand."

"If nominated, I will run," he joked when asked if it's possible he might become a permanent substitute host for Johnny Carson on NBC's "Tonight Show," most recently vacated amid much acrimony by Joan Rivers, who now will star in her own show on the new Fox television network.

Tartikoff interjected that Rivers' replacement has not been picked, but that obviously Leno is among those being considered.

Leno's new contract calls for guest appearances on NBC series and for him to star in at least three late-night variety specials during the coming season.

Leno jokingly ducked the question of how long his "multi-year" contract with NBC runs by saying, "I've worked Vegas, and as long as you're hitting, they'll hand you the dice."

In another announcement, Tartikoff said that NBC has ordered a mid-season comedy series, "The Tortellis," a spinoff from "Cheers" about the waitress Carla's ex-husband and his new wife.

Meanwhile, at an earlier meeting with reporters, "Saturday Night Live" executive producer Lorne Michaels said he is planning changes in the show's format, cast and writing staff for next season in an effort to revive the late-night comedy series. Only three or four members of last season's nine-person cast will be back, he said, but the only one he would confirm as definite was Jon Lovitz, whose character of a compulsive liar won him wide attention.

While declining to be specific about the other possible cast members returning, he said the audiences seemed to react best last season to Randy Quaid and Dennis Miller (of the "Weekend Update" segment). Michaels, who will personally produce the show next season, also said he is going to look for more comedians for the cast.

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