An emotional Jay Leno bids goodbye to ‘Tonight’

TV host steps down after 22 years at the helm

Johnny Carson’s departure from “The Tonight Show” was an abdication. Jay Leno’s last show, on Thursday, was closer to a retirement party - a bittersweet send-off for a loyal executive pushed out after 22 years.

"It's fun to kind of be the old guy and sit back here and see where the next generation takes this great institution," Leno said about his successor, Jimmy Fallon. More gamely than convincingly, he added, "But it really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy. It really is."

Ratings in the last week soared, but it wasn’t that audiences were anticipating a train wreck or a cultural milestone. Many viewers weren’t feeling loss so much as pinpricks of projected anxiety. Leno’s emotional last bow was poignant not because he is a legendary figure who can never be replaced, but because he is the nice guy who worked really hard, did a great job and will barely be missed come Monday morning.

Newer viewers were like the younger employees down the hall who barely know the retiree but are still drawn to the drama of a forced exit and also the free Champagne and cake.

For his older, longtime fans - his audience’s median age is 47.5 - there was a there-but-for-the-grace-of God frisson. Leno, 63, is such a familiar fixture of network television that his last hurrah became a dreaded rite of passage, an acting out of people’s deepest fears about their own obsolescence.

It happens to almost everyone. Thursday night, it was Leno's turn. He tapped Billy Crystal, his first guest in 1992, to be his last, and asked his favourite singer, country star Garth Brooks, to perform. And he smiled through skits and cameos by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett and Kim Kardashian about his departure, while President Barack Obama paid his respects in a taped message. Crystal led what he called the Shut Your Von Trapp Family Singers in a parody of a "Sound of Music "song reworded in his honour.

“There a sad sort of clanging From the clock in the hall And the bells in the steeple too And all the executives that run NBC Are popping in to say you’re through.”

Leno let his feelings flow only at the very end, and this time, he didn’t make any of the kinds of jokes about NBC that dotted his last week at the network. “I didn’t know anybody over there,” he said, explaining why he never went to Fox or ABC. Choking up, he added, “these are the only people I’ve ever known.”

Onstage, Leno was the most accessible talk show host, the kind of comedian who will always do another set or pose for one more snapshot with fans. He started his show every night by wading into a crowd of audience members and shaking hands - or rather pulling hands like a Swiss bell ringer. His jokes weren’t cutting edge, and his references were sometimes dated - In his last days he made cracks about O.J. Simpson and Kathie Lee Gifford in her Carnival cruise days.

He was unfailingly gracious to Fallon, who was his guest on Monday night and also gave him a shout-out on his own programme Thursday, inviting him to come back to “Tonight” anytime. Fallon takes over on February 17th.

But in the run-up to Leno’s last show, he didn’t let up on NBC, which replaced him with Conan O’Brien in 2009 and had to reinstate him a year later after O’Brien flopped.

“I read today that NBC said they would like me to be just like Bob Hope: dead,” he joked earlier this week. Some in the studio audience, taken aback, moaned. “I don’t care, I like that joke,” Leno replied.

Throughout his tenure, Leno was both friendly and oddly impersonal. He was a skilled joke teller who didn’t let down his guard or his hair. He wore dark suits and delivered his monologue framed by somber wood panelling and potted plants.

So when that veneer of blithe professional bonhomie finally dissolved, it was touching and disconcerting to see him shakily say, “This has been the greatest 22 years of my life.”

A farewell tribute on television has its advantages: The honouree gets to listen in on eulogies and witness a preview of the funeral. But there is also a cost. Leno will be around the next day to see how quickly the mourners mop their tears and the cortege moves on.

That’s perhaps why he chose to quote his predecessor Johnny Carson, who left his audience with the words, “I bid you all a heartfelt goodnight.” It’s not as unnervingly final as goodbye.

New York Times