Yes, four years after returning to the late-night NBC talk show after briefly being ousted so that Conan O’Brien could take over, the Peacock Network unceremoniously shoved Leno out the door again, this time in favor of Jimmy Fallon, who steps into the driver’s seat on Feb. 17th. Aside from O’Brien’s nine-month stint, Leno had hosted the show for 22 years.
“I don’t like goodbyes. NBC does, but I don’t,” quipped Leno in the very first joke of his final opening monologue. “This is my last show – for real. I don’t need to be fired three times, I get the hint!”
And with that, the night was filled with Leno’s typical zingers (“The outpouring from people has really been touching – today, Anthony Weiner sent me a picture of his penis looking sad.”) The main guests were actor/comedian Billy Crystal and country singer Garth Brooks, along with numerous celebrity pop-ins.
While funny and heartfelt – and just downright sad at the end – the episode underscored why Leno is being given the boot again: he’s just not hip. Crystal and Brooks? Chances are no one under the age of 40 tuned in just to see them. Long-running jokes about O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton? You could see them coming a mile away.
But that’s Leno’s audience – an older demographic looking for something familiar to settle down to at the end of the night. (He once again went out on a ratings high-note, nabbing a 4.3 on the penultimate night of his farewell week – more viewers than some primetime shows these days.) So Fallon’s got some big shoes to fill.
And the Late Night host knows it. During one skit, titled “What’s Next for Jay?,” a slew of stars gave Leno advice on what he should do next: Enjoy his newfound freedom and don’t look back, said Steve Carell, while sitting at his desk on The Office set; Charlie Sheen told him to use all the money he’s saved over the years to buy NBC and “fire everybody”; and Martha Stewart made a pass by offering to wear a bikini made of bacon. But Fallon had the final word, sincerely thanking Leno for his help and saying that he’ll always have a home to visit on The Tonight Show set. (As a guest, of course.)
The long-time rumored rivalry between Leno and fellow late-night host David Letterman was even brought up: “People always wanted to know whether Letterman and I actually didn’t like each other. It’s not true. We like each other,” Leno admitted, before adding a one-liner about Republican primaries being the only place where millionaires should publicly feud.
As for guests, Crystal was on hand because he was the very first person Leno ever had on the show way back in 1992, and the two shared war stories about coming up as young comedians. Crystal even busted out a few impressions, from The Godfather to Muhammad Ali to Leno himself. Then the nine-time Oscar host feted his old friend with a comical song and dance number that included surprise appearances by everyone from Jack Black and Kim Kardashian to Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey. At the end of his own monologue, Crystal said that on that very first show, Leno told him he’d have him back for his very last show: “Promise made, promise kept.”
Then, Brooks performed “The Dance” before things got really heavy.
As the minutes ticked down, Leno said an emotional goodbye that left him in tears: “Boy, this is the hard part. I want to thank you, the audience. We wouldn’t be on the air without you. This has been the greatest 22 years of my life. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”
Haven’t busted out the tissues yet? How about this: “The first year of the show, I lost my mom. The second year, I lost my dad. Then my brother, and after that I was pretty much out of family. So, the folks here became my family.”
And that’s why he never left when ABC or Fox came calling with a better offer, because “I didn’t know anybody there, these are the only people I’ve ever known,” he said while wiping away tears.
And ever the dutiful employee, he added: “I’m really excited for Jimmy Fallon, because I can’t wait to see where the next generation takes this great institution. I’m so glad I was able to be a part of that institution, but it really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy.”
In the final moments, he quoted his own predecessor, Johnny Carson, saying, “I bid you all a heartfelt good. . .” before quickly cutting himself off and calling on Brooks to liven things up again with the country singer’s hit song “Friends in Low Places.”
And with that, Leno signed off for the last time.