BURBANK, Calif. – With a touch of emotion in his voice and a bit of dampness in his eyes, Jay Leno on Friday said his final farewell to “The Tonight Show,” NBC’s top-rated late-night franchise that he hosted for 17 years.
Leno, who will return to the network this fall in a nightly 10 p.m. comedy series, combined his characteristic casual lightness with thanks to viewers, staffers, supporters, and his wife, Mavis, who was in the audience.
For a few moments, it seemed that the white-haired host might not get a chance to start the show. A rousing ovation accompanied by cheers and whoops from band leader Kevin Eubanks lasted almost two minutes, and Leno kept pointing to his watch and imploring the audience to sit down, while obviously enjoying the applause.
When he finally started the opening monologue, he made several jokes about changes in the world under his reign: “When I started here, my hair was black and the president was white. Jon and Kate were both eight.”
He paid homage to his predecessor, the late Johnny Carson, as he described how the show had lasted through four U.S. presidents (“Two of them Bill Clinton and George Bush – thank you so much for that. Thank you for those two!”) and national tragedies such as the 9/11 disaster. He said one of the most important things he learned from Carson was that “you always have to have the monologue ready. … You always want to have jokes. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last 17 years, make you laugh.”
Although he introduced the final segment of the show by saying, “Now, the hard part,” Leno mostly maintained his composure as he thanked his producers, writers, crew members and Eubanks.
Relating how he had been asked numerous times in the last several weeks about leaving, Leno said: “I’m thrilled. When I took this from Johnny, the show was the No. 1 show on late night television. … It’s No. 1, which means I get back my security deposit.” He also implored viewers to show his successor, Conan O’Brien, who takes over Monday, “as much support as you’ve shown me the last 17 years.”
As had been announced, O’Brien was a guest of Leno’s last “Tonight,” along with James Taylor, who sang “Sweet Baby James,” a special request by Leno.
In the final moments of the show, Leno introduced the 68 children that had been born to “The Tonight Show” crew and staffers in the last 17 years. He called those children “the true legacy” of the show.