Jay Leno proved Thursday that he does know how to say goodbye after all.
With a show that at once sad, funny, nostalgic and wise, Leno signed off from “The Tonight Show” after 22 years, striking a perfect tone. He fought back tears at one point, noting that he lost his father, mother and brother in the show’s early years.
“And after that, I was pretty much out of family. And the folks here became my family,” he said. That’s why he never left for ABC, CBS or Fox, he said. “I didn’t know anybody over there. These are all the people I’ve ever known.”
“This has been the greatest 22 years of my life. I really am the luckiest guy in the world,” he said.
The episode felt like an affectionate roast. Leno, once accused of jealously refusing to yield the show, was plenty generous with airtime. He left it to others to get most of the laughs, though he got plenty of his own too: At one point he said the real shame was that in all his time on the show, O.J. Simpson never found the real killers.
Leno lost a few fans as he tussled with Conan O’Brien for the “Tonight Show.” But it was hard not to feel nostalgic Thursday, and hard not to be sorry to see the Leno era end.The last time Leno stepped down, in 2010, he was just moving to an earlier timeslot. This time, what he does next is a mystery. And it’s possible to feel like he’s being shuffled off prematurely, given that NBC is replacing him with Jimmy Fallon while he’s still at the top of the late-night ratings.
There was no bitterness, however, in Thursday’s sendoff. Leno thought of everything — even noting his pride in having a union crew.
Billy Crystal did a routine that consisted of Leno’s greatest hits. Crystal was Leno’s first guest when he took over the show from Johnny Carson.A slew of celebrities, including Steve Carell, Kevin Bacon, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Sheen, Matt Damon and Dana Carvey — doing a Leno imitation — gave Leno suggestions on what he should do next.
The best joke in the videotaped tributes came from President Obama, who said he didn’t mind all the jokes Leno has told about him over the years — and congratulated him on being named the new ambassador to Antarctica.
Bill Maher was a close runner-up. First he recorded a message saying goodbye — and then kept the camera rolling for another message, welcoming him back.
But Leno probably won’t be back, this time. If he wants to drop in, he’ll be welcome
Fallon gave him an open invitation to return, telling Leno in his taped tribute that if he ever has jokes he wants to tell, “You can always come home and tell them on ‘The Tonight Show.”
Musical guest Garth Brooks called Leno “the dearest friend to entertainment.”
He also thanked Leno for not playing favorites, whether it came to genres or networks. It was an astute compliment. Leno, to his credit, never generated tussles — except when it came to who would host the “Tonight.”
The wide range of guests who turned up to sing a goodbye song testified to Leno’s broad appeal. Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Chris Paul, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, Carol Burnett (doing a Tarzan yell) and Oprah Winfrey all sang a verse to Leno.
NBC has said it hopes Leno will stay on with the network in some capacity. And thanks to his graceful goodbye, viewers will welcome him back, too. Once, some felt that he had worn out his welcome. With Thursday’s sendoff, there was a greater sense that we’ll miss the guy.