Characteristically, Leno wasn’t particularly maudlin or sentimental at first, at least compared to Johnny Carson’s “very heartfelt goodnight” that preceded Leno’s briefly interrupted stint as Carson’s successor.
In the closing moments, however, when it was just him at the desk, Leno did choke up, calling “The Tonight Show” “the greatest 22 years of my life,” talking about losing his parents in the first few years the show was on, and how the staff had become his family. Leno even quoted Carson’s sign-off, while saying he was “excited” for his successor, Jimmy Fallon.
“It really is time to go,” he said.
The role of honoring Leno fell largely to Billy Crystal, who lauded him as “America’s night light;” proceeded to reminisce about the early, hungry days of their 40-year relationship and careers; then treated Leno to a surprise rendition of a particularly appropriate song from “The Sound of Music,” performed by multiple stars, among them Oprah Winfrey.
Leno did build a routine around things that have changed in the 22 years since he first took over “The Tonight Show,” including the birth of Justin Bieber, and the fact “Guys actually had to go to the newsstand for porn.” He also referenced David Letterman, using the familiar joke that if people wanted to see millionaires argue on TV, “That’s what Republican primaries are for.”
Even then, though, Leno couldn’t resist throwing in several completely unrelated topical jokes, as if his exit wasn’t enough of an event to supersede weighing in, as he has for so many years, on the news of the day.
The early portion of the show included a list of cheeky taped farewells from other famous figures — including President Obama — but the best line might have belonged to Charlie Sheen, who advised Leno to use his considerable fortune to “Buy NBC, and fire everybody.”
Leno’s apparent emotional health and single-minded devotion to performing — harboring a struggling standup comic’s mentality and work ethic, even at the pinnacle of his career — may have made him less interesting than some of latenight’s other personalities and his comedy contemporaries (Letterman among them). Yet his aw-shucks demeanor — despite getting a second shove toward the door while sitting atop the latenight ratings — both appears to have served him well and simultaneously made this baton pass seem less momentous. It also made his show of emotion as surprising as it was touching.
Ultimately, Leno has little reason for a long face. Not only does he have more than 100 club dates booked, as he noted in an interview with Variety, but he has plenty of options. It’s just that none of them are the one that he and Letterman and Conan O’Brien and others have coveted and turned into TV’s version of a Shakespearean drama over the last 20-plus years.
Jimmy Fallon might fare better — and certainly is likely to hang around longer — than O’Brien did. Still, just as the legendary programming executive Grant Tinker characterized Carson’s “Tonight” tenure as “the biggest and best television has ever been,” with the 60-year-old program’s latest change in stewardship, the franchise just got a little smaller.