After 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?
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”).
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!