Jay Leno said farewell to the “Tonight Show” on Friday, kicking off his final show by thanking “all the people who made it possible.”
For the top-rated late night host, that meant the newsmakers who gave Leno plenty of monologue fodder through the years: Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, for starters.
Walking out on stage to a lengthy standing ovation from the audience –which consisted of fans who had camped out for tickets, as well as Leno’s wife Mavis, among others.
Leno welcomed the audience “to the exciting season finale of the ‘Tonight Show.'”
The host made a few quips about his departure, as well as his upcoming primetime strip on the Peacock. After leaving “Tonight,” he joked, he planned to “move to a secluded spot where no one can find me: NBC primetime.”
Leno also pointed out that the move to 10 p.m. was “a gamble.”
“I’m betting everything that NBC will still be around in three months,” he joked. “That is not a given.”
Given the broadcast industry’s economic woes, Leno also gagged that NBC U topper Jeff Zucker had offered Leno the chance to purchase the robe in his room for $40.
Leno’s farewell was muted by the fact that he won’t be away from the Peacock for long; after a summer off to prepare for the new show, he’ll be back on NBC by September (likely a week or so before the start of the fall season).
“We’re not really leaving,” he said.
As a result, much of Leno’s monologue had nothing to do with his departure at all; he hit several current events, including several economy gags. He also noted that former Presidents Bush and Clinton were set to take part in a debate in Toronto, adding, “I wish I had one more day, one more day!”
Leno did note that some things had changed in the 17 years since he first took the “Tonight” gig: “When we started the show, my hair was black and the president was white.”
And Leno, who saw his ratings rise around the same time O.J. Simpson was arrested for murder in 1994 (gags like the recurring “dancing Itos” were seen as helping bolster his popularity) made one last joke at the expense of the now-incarcerated Juice.
“I was cleaning my room today and I found O.J.’s knife,” he said. “I had it the whole time!”
Also during the monologue, he showcased a few clips of Rodney Dangerfield as an homage to the late comedian. And he even introduced a new feature on his last night: “White Trash Theater,” which revolved around a fuzzy clip of a woman throwing a beer bottle at a younger man.
For his final show, Leno also welcomed final guests Conan O’Brien, who takes the “Tonight Show” reins on Monday, and singer/songwriter James Taylor.
Leno graciously told O’Brien that he was “the only choice, the perfect choice” in taking over “Tonight” and thanked him for being an “absolute gentleman” during the transition.
O’Brien, meanwhile, addressed critics who have wondered whether his younger-skewing comedy will connect with a broader audience at 11:30, showing a brief clip of a comedy bit he plans to air next week in which he went undercover at a focus group for senior citizens.
Later in the show, Taylor played a favorite tune of Leno’s, “Sweet Baby James.”
Leno closed the show by thanking a myriad of supporters at the network and on the show’s staff.
“I’m thrilled that when I took this from Johnny (Carson) the show was No. 1, and when we’re handing it to Conan it’s No. 1, so I get my security deposit back,” he said.
Leno then signed off by noting the number of personal relationships that have thrived among the show’s staff — and opened the curtain to reveal the 68 children who have been born to “Tonight Show” staffers during Leno’s 17-year run.