After 22 years, Leno Gave ’Tonight’ His Farewell
Make way for Jimmy Fallon,
"Tonight Show" host Jay Leno ended a stellar if sometimes stormy run Thursday night with high emotion at concluding what he termed "the greatest 22 years of my life."
Calling himself "the luckiest guy in the world," Leno went out on top, which was where he stayed for most of his stretch as the successor to "King of Late Night" Johnny Carson.
His exit, not entirely by choice, now clears the deck for yet another chapter of the 60-year-old talk show, with Fallon taking over as "Tonight" moves back to New York from its longtime Los Angeles home on Feb. 17.
"You’re very kind," Leno told his audience at the start of his last monologue. "I don’t like goodbyes. NBC does. I don’t care for them."
He had said goodbye to "The Tonight Show" before.
His first departure came in 2009, when he was briefly replaced by Conan O’Brien but reclaimed the show after a messy transition and O’Brien’s lackluster ratings. In ’09, he was moving to a prime-time show on NBC; this time he’s out the door, and has said he’ll focus on comedy clubs and his beloved car collection.
"I don’t need to get fired three times," he cracked. "I get the hint."
Looking sharp in a black suit and bright blue tie, Leno was greeted by a standing ovation from the VIP audience. The typically self-contained comic betrayed a bit of nervousness, stumbling over a few lines in his monologue as he looked back comically.
"When I started hosting, Justin Bieber wasn’t even born yet," Leno marveled. "That’s why we called those ’the good old days.’"
The worst part of leaving NBC’s employ, he joked: "Now I’ll have to sign up for Obamacare."
But later Leno was serious, even choking up, when he shared that he’d lost his mother the first year he became "Tonight" host, his dad the second and then his brother.
"And after that I was pretty much out of family. And the folks here became my family," he said of the crew and staff of "Tonight."
The tender moments had a heightened effect on a show that was mostly aiming for laughs, with traditional monologue jokes, clips from old shows and a wild assortment of celebrities helping him close the book.
Leno brought his show full circle with Billy Crystal, who was his first guest in May 1992 and his last guest Thursday. Crystal played ringmaster at one point, calling on Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Carol Burnett and others for a musical tribute to Jay with a "Sound of Music" song parody.