By Eric Kelsey
BURBANK, California (Reuters) – Comedian Jay Leno said an emotional goodbye to the “Tonight Show” on Thursday with a star-studded farewell led by actor Billy Crystal, after hosting the NBC late night program for more than 20 years and handing the reins over to Jimmy Fallon.
Leno, 63, who took over one of U.S. broadcast television’s marquee programs in 1992 from Johnny Carson, came out to a standing ovation from the audience of friends and family, shaking hands with many as he did in each show.
“I don’t like goodbyes; NBC does,” Leno quipped when opening his monologue, poking fun at the network that orchestrated his departure from the show in 2009 only to reinstall him back as host less than a year later.
His final monologue was peppered with then-and-now reflections on the changes since his tenure at “Tonight” began.
“When I started hosting, Justin Bieber wasn’t even born yet. That’s why we call those the good ol’ days,” Leno said, poking fun at the troubled Canadian teen pop star.
The silver-haired host ended the show on an emotional note, saying, “This has been the greatest 22 years of my life,” as he rested his hand on his chin with tears welling in his eyes.
“It really is time for me to go and hand it off to the next guy,” the comedian added.
Leno’s departure and Fallon’s hire marks NBC’s second attempt to transition the “Tonight Show” into a program appealing to the 18-34 year old demographic coveted by advertisers while still maintaining its top spot in the ratings.
Fallon, 39, will be taking the “Tonight Show” back to its New York roots for the first time since 1972, when NBC moved the show with Carson to Burbank, California. Fallon will begin his new hosting duties on February 17 on the network owned by Comcast Corp.
Leno ended his long-running late night tenure with one of the guests from his first “Tonight Show” on May 25, 1992, actor-comedian Crystal, who praised Leno for giving a comic’s levity to current events and “making us sleep better at night.”
Crystal led a comic rendition of “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music” that included guest appearances from Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Carol Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, NBA basketball player Chris Paul and Kim Kardashian. Country music star Garth Brooks was the musical guest, performing two songs including his hit, “Friends in Low Places”
Leno also received pre-recorded farewells from celebrities such as actors Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Sheen, sports broadcaster Bob Costas and his successor Jimmy Fallon. Even President Barack Obama, who in 2009 became the first sitting president to appear on a late night talk show when he joined Leno on “Tonight,” delivered a pre-recorded goodbye.
The “Tonight Show” first aired on NBC in 1954 from New York with host Steve Allen. Jack Paar hosted the show from 1957 until Carson took over in 1962, and held his reign for 30 years, before departing in 1992.
Leno led the “Tonight Show” to the top of the late night ratings in 1995 and has held off competitors David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” The show only lost its grip atop the ratings when Conan O’Brien took over the show for nine months in 2009-2010.
Over Leno’s 22 years, he has been joined on the couch by celebrities, politicians, athletes and pop culture figures. Notable guests include Tom Cruise, Betty White, Hugh Grant, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, first lady Michelle Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and most recently, Miley Cyrus.
Leno’s stint at “Tonight” has not been without controversy. NBC picked Leno over Letterman, then the host of NBC’s “Late Night” talk show, to replace Carson in 1992, resulting in a very public, bitter feud.
Letterman left the network for its competitor CBS, and launched his own talk show in the same timeslot as “Tonight,” going head-to-head with Leno and initially beating him in the ratings.
NBC appointed O’Brien in 2004 to be Leno’s successor when he left the show in 2008 to host his own primetime program on the network.
But in 2009, after O’Brien’s short helm at “Tonight” and Leno’s primetime show suffered from poor ratings, NBC attempted to push “Tonight Show” into a later timeslot behind Leno’s show, forcing O’Brien to end his contract with NBC, and Leno to return to “Tonight” less than a year later.
The “Tonight Show” currently draws about 3.9 million viewers per episode. In Leno’s final week, the “Tonight Show” drew an average of nearly 5 million viewers per episode.
(Writing by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)