Jay Leno's Final Tonight Show Hits 5-Year Ratings High: The 5 Most Memorable Moments

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 22After 22 years, Jay Leno bid a nostalgia-filled adieu to The Tonight Show, celebrating a late-night TV legacy that — setting aside his infamous temporary replacement by Conan O’Brien in 2009-’10 — arguably rivals all except predecessor Johnny Carson’s legendary 30-year reign over the NBC juggernaut.

But did Leno’s farewell — which netted the show’s highest overnight rating since March 2009 — contain anything as moving as Bette Midler’s now iconic “One For My Baby” sendoff of Carson, which moved most of America (and Johnny himself) to tears back in 1992?

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Despite the presence of special guests Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks, the 63-year-old Leno’s finale was an oddly un-emotional affair, at least until the last few minutes. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t noteworthy components. In fact, you’ll find our picks for Top 5 Memorable Moments below:

One Last Monologue | It may have been a sentimental night, but that doesn’t mean Leno’s writers had the night off. The host delivered his usual mix of political and pop-cultural zingers, including this parting shot at a favored target: “I’ve got to tell you, the outpouring from people has really been touching. Anthony Weiner sent me a photo of his penis looking really sad.” And this one: “The worst thing about losing this job, I’m no longer covered by NBC. I have to sign up for Obamacare!” Meanwhile, an iffy pre-taped segment showed Leno’s favorite politicians (can you name one that wasn’t in this collage?) digitally manipulated into eye-popping activities (Obama and Mitt Romney jamming to “Call Me Maybe”).

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Surprise “Musical” Guests | Everyone knew that Garth Brooks was planning to perform Leno’s favorite track, “The Dance,” but the country star wasn’t the only one who brought the gift of music. Billy Crystal and the Shut Your Von Trapp Family Singers were joined by Oprah Winfrey Jack Black, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, NBA star Chris Paul and the legendary Carol Burnett (plus, Kim Kardashian — the night’s most glaring misstep) for a cheeky, customized rendition of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music. Best line? Definitely Oprah’s concluding verse: “So long, farewell, you really raised the bar. If you were me, you’d buy them all a car!”

First Guest, Last Guest | Because Billy Crystal helped launch Leno’s Tonight Show career, he appropriately returned tonight for a few minutes of stand-up (“When it was announced recently that America’s No. 1 terrorist had been captured, who told us it was Justin Bieber? You did.”), and one last sit-down interview.

What’s Next for Jay? | Of course, not every special guest could show up in person. Taped segments included Bob Costas (hilariously swigging out of a Jack Daniels bottle), Kevin Bacon (showing off a naked portrait of – who else? – Jay himself) and President Barack Obama. “You made a lot of jokes about me over the years – I’m not upset,” said POTUS, who then appointed Leno as the new Ambassador to Antarctica. “Hope you’ve got a coat funny man!” Other sightings included Bill Maher, Mark Wahlberg, Miley Cyrus, Charlie Sheen, Matt Damon and even a sexy, steamed up Martha Stewart — hoping for Jay to get a “Hall Pass” and sample her bacon-kini!

A Classy (and Tear-Stained) Goodbye | His voice quivered at times throughout the night, but Leno really let the tears flow as he bid his final farewell (from his desk) by thanking his loyal audience: “We wouldn’t be on the air without you people. Secondly, this has been the greatest 22 years of my life. I am the luckiest guy in the world. I got to meet presidents and astronauts and movie stars. It’s just been incredible.” Leno’s heartfelt memories of his parents and brother (who all passed away during his 22 years on the show) were incredibly intimate and touching, and his parting words were the same as Carson’s: “I bid you all a heartfelt goodnight.”

And with that, it’s your turn. What was your favorite moment of Leno’s farewell? Leave your comments and take our poll below!


Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. MP says:

    I’ve always liked Jay and thought his last show was touching. I cried right along with him, especially when he talked about his parents and brother and his TV family. I wish good things for him and thank him for all the years of laughter.

  2. u says:

    why was kim kardashian there???

  3. NoLeno says:

    Good riddance (again), you unfunny man.

    • Sharon Rossborough says:

      Didn”t your parents teach you if you can not say something nice then do not say anything at all.Loved your showJay loved your show and you will truly be missed.

  4. Esaul says:

    Only way I’ll watch this episode is for Garth.

  5. Ms. Diane M. Berkheiser, Frackville Pennsylvania says:

    Kudos to Jay Leno for bidding adieu with the same style and class that he hosted the Tonight Show with. I feel that NBC has made a huge mistake in replacing him. I have seen Mr. Fallon’s style and do not find it appealing – so I will be looking for something else to watch in that time slot. Wishing Jay Leno only the best of things to come ~ Most Sincerely, Diane M. Berkheiser

  6. WonderWaage says:

    He’ll be back. You can’t kill cockroaches.

  7. Mary says:

    Kim kardashian?! WTF!

  8. If you don't like Leno kill yourself says:

    It was a wonderful episode, I’ve really enjoyed his whole final month.

  9. It was touching the first time he left. Not so much this time.

  10. Guest says:

    “Arguably rivals” Johnny? Only in duration, perhaps, but not in any other way. Sorry, but IMHO he wasn’t as funny, clever, or classy as Johnny. His jokes were tepid, at best, and at his worst, his first retirement and subsequent treatment of Conan was truly appalling. There’s karma for that, and I think it says a lot in the fact that Johnny never wanted Jay to be the successor, but never publicly did anything to sabatoge Jay’s run. Johnny just quietly gave David Letterman jokes to use.

    • Kristen V says:

      And what is Conan’s karma for demanding Jay’s job or he walks? If he had waited a few more years, Jay may have been ready to go. Jay did not go to Conan and offer him his position, Jay’s bosses did after Conan reportedly threw down his demands. Conan started the whole mess and is reaping what he sowed.

      • Mary says:

        If I remember correctly the ratings sucked with Conan there. I personally don’t watch any late night TV since I have a job that gets me up early. Conan should throw shades at NBC for putting Leno back in.

    • NJMark says:

      Johnny wasn’t in charge of the network. His successor was not his decision to make.

      • exactly! what performer in any show gets to pick there replacement/ Did Alan Alda get to decide what would play in Mash’s time slot? Nor did Johnny ever SAY he wanted Letterman to replace him. Perhaps the two men (Dave and Johnny) happened to have a friendship. End of story.

  11. John says:

    Jay’s monologues were the best of any of the late night shows since Johnny Carson. Maybe I’m old school, but I really don’t see the humor in most of the younger comedian’s attempts.

  12. kd83954 says:

    Don’t forget the * next to the 22 years. Lest we forget that we went through this again when Conan took over. I don’t deny the impact Leno has had on late night, but it’s very hard for me to stomach the way he treated Conan. Also, I’m fairly certain Leno will pop up on cable –don’t be surprised if he has a late night show on HBO or TNT or something. He’s not going anywhere and the cable powerhouses are salivating at the thought of having him join their team.

  13. Bob Johnson says:

    If all his previous shows had the quality of last night’s show, he would have been watchable. Interesting how he had Matt Damon and Sheryl Crow on, who were prominently featured a year ago when Damon “kidnapped” Jimmy Kimmel.

  14. matt says:

    I really appreciated his sincere and surprising apologies to Conan and Dave. without those, it really just came off as continuing the tradition of self-serving crap that….

    wait… I’m being told that never happened. nevermind… it sucked.

    • Kristen V says:

      Why did he have to apologize to Conan and Dave? Conan demanded Jay’s job from Jay’s bosses and Jay took a job he was offered by NBC. NBC did not offer the job to Dave. What would YOU have done? Bypassed a good offer? Have you done this in your own work? Have you given up a job you like, make good money at and still are doing well for someone else who wants your job?

      • matt says:

        you have a very interesting (read: distorted) perspective on these things. as far as what i would do, i haven’t been put in that situation, but i would not accept a job that had been promised to someone i call a friend for any amount of money. first, because it’s the right thing to do and second because, who would want to work for those people?

        • Kristen V says:

          Re: “job that had been promised to someone I call friend…” Who are you referring to? Dave or Conan? Dave and Jay were friends, yes. Johnny wished the job on Dave, but he wasn’t in charge. NBC offered the job to Jay. Were Conan and Jay friends? I don’t know. But again, NBC offered Jay’s job to Conan, Jay did not initiate the job change.

      • jason says:

        so not true – conan didn’t demand the job any more than anyone did for johnny. however the nbc executives decided, they executed the transition poorly, like they did for the today show and ann curry, but, jay could have bowed out graciously (as he first did) and then try a new venture, where he wouldn’t have hurt his image. As it stands, he looks like a poor loser who whined about his successor and demanded to get his job back.

  15. Gerald says:

    I’m sorry I was too busy watching Jimmy Kimmel interview (almost) the entire cast of Monuments Men. Great counter programming. I want to know what those ratings were.

    • Paul says:

      According to tvbythenumbers.com, Leno usually doubles the number of viewers Kimmel has, so I imagine last night was even worst for Kimmel. For the week of 1/27 to 1/31, Leno averaged 5 million per night while Kimmel averaged 2.4 million.

  16. Jen says:

    The whole debacle with Conan ruined his legacy and any opportunity you could ever have to put his name anywhere near Johnny Carson’s . Johnny NEVER would have done what Jay did. You can say it was all NBC’s fault until you are blue in the face and it still does not change what JAY did. He could have said no and kept his dignity. And if any of you were ever on the fence about his judgement until last night, two words for you: Kim Kardashian.

  17. barbara says:

    i could care less that he’s gone or will he screw over jimmy fallon like he did conan!!!!!!

  18. Heathers says:

    Why so much negativity from you all? If you didn’t like the show, then why watch?! Please go back to watching Conan or Arsenio, or the Disney Channel or whatever it is you watch late night. I’ll miss Jay, and I think Jimmy Fallon will do just fine. I am wondering what changes he will bring to the show.

    • MaryLou says:

      What a bunch of sourpusses many of you are. I seriously doubt that anyone was holding a gun over anyone’s head forcing any of you to watch the show, either last night or at any other time. If you don’t like the guy, so be it, don’t watch. Just let those of us who have enjoyed Jay for all of these years (who are the Majority) enjoy our memories of the show, the rest of you can just go in the corner and sulk all you want.

      • donna hooter says:

        Jay will be missed by most. Good down to earth comedian
        Never x rated
        I wish him health and success in his next journey ! I thank him for putting e tosleep each nite

  19. David4 says:

    The best part… the credits.

  20. sam says:

    good riddance.

  21. Now what will you whine about? Conan sucked so Jay got the show back. Are you blaming Jane Lynch for taking over Michael J. Fox’s spot on Thursday nights?

  22. RCR says:

    Yeah, no one has ever been able to give one reason why Jay is a “monster” or treated Conan badly. What did Conan expect when he told NBC in 2004, “Give me Jay’s job or I walk”? He and NBC worked out a deal firing Jay, then NBC went to Jay and told him he was out in five years.

    By contrast, Fallon called Jay and told him he wasn’t gunning for his job and that he was happy at 12:30. This time, when NBC ASKED him if he’d step down instead of telling him after the Conan deal, he said yes.

    Conan’s true colors shone brightly last night. Arsenio and Letterman congratulated Jay on his tenure. Kimmel, who pretaped, tweeted out a congratulations. Conan? He did an anti-Jay joke. Made him look like a total douchebag.

    • Sparky says:

      Too true and even Kimmels tweet was in Al Rokers opinion disingenuous and I have to agree with him. Jay doesn’t own NBC. He was given an opportunity to give his team their jobs back when NBC asked him back and he took it and he took all the mud slinging on the chin. I’m sorry but rather than keep all his team in jobs Conan was willing to walk away and put them out of work. Plus if you look at the ratings Jay continued to dominate the ratings for the majority of his tenor so as unpalatable as it may have been NBC eventually made the right decision in putting Jay back. I always found Jays humor and interviews funnier than the rest aside from Craig Ferguson. Best of luck to Jimmy but I’m sure with Lorne Michaels by his side he will navigate the Tonight Show to further success. Goodbye Jay thanks for all the memories!!!

      • Rob says:

        I thought Jay did a great job considering the act he had to follow. I would like to hear from those who despised him as who THEY thought would have done a better job. Conan is where he belongs… in cyber cable. I was born on the same day as Jay and I’m a car guy with oil running through my veins as well. I would treasure meeting him someday. Jay is a stand up guy…that’s showbiz!

  23. OWS says:

    Most glaring misstep: Oprah.

  24. Randy says:

    How much will Jay get on unemployment??????? Just kidding, I wish him all the best!

  25. Wahooooo says:

    Letterman rules. Jay is annoying. Good to see him gone.

  26. Me says:

    Why was kim kardashian there shes the last person anyone would of expected and singing? She has no talent and cant sing she just has to be in the camera no matter what it makes no sense somones so desperate for attention then shes right in the middle to be sure shes seen now that jay leno is leaving she needs to as well.

  27. Trish says:

    Thanks for the memories Jay! Really gonna miss ya baby! You’re a real stand up guy!!
    Love you!