powered by FreeFind

Apple iTunes


Leno's star-adorned final Tonight (plus quavering exit speech)


Jay Leno’s voice broke at outset of his closing remarks. Photo: Ed Bark

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Johnny Carson’s last Tonight Show, on May 22, 1992, came and went without any guests at all.

Jay Leno in contrast loaded up while all the while insisting he didn’t know what “surprises” were in store for him Thursday night.

But both men delivered emotional farewells, showing sides of them that were seldom in evidence during their respective 30- and 22-year tenures in charge of network television’s most storied late night franchise.

“Boy, this is the hard part,” Leno said, his voice breaking for the first of several times. “This has been the greatest 22 years of my life.”

Jimmy Fallon will succeed him on Feb. 17th in a transition that’s been much smoother this time around even though it still seems to make little sense to dump a guy who remains a dominant No. 1 in all major late night audience measurements.

Whether he fully meant it or not, Leno made it a point to praise Fallon and close the door firmly on any return during his monologue and farewell remarks.

“I don’t like goodbyes. NBC does. I don’t care for ‘em,” Leno said for openers after being greeted with the expected standing ovation from his studio audience. “Tonight is our last show for real. See, I don’t need to get fired three times. I get the hint.”

While signing off, Leno said he is “really excited for Jimmy Fallon,” of whom he’s “proud.” The Tonight Show is a “great institution,” he said, and “I am so glad I got to be a part of it. But it really is time to go, hand it off to the next guy. It really is. And in closing, I want to quote Johnny Carson, who was the greatest guy to ever do this job. He said, ‘I bid you all a heartfelt goodnight.’ “

It seemed that Leno was seeking to atone for not mentioning Carson at all when he officially took over Tonight on May 25, 1992. But he flubbed the quote just a bit. What Carson actually said was, “I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight.”

NBC had announced Leno’s last guests -- Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks -- a few weeks earlier. But then came an onslaught, both via videotape and onstage. During his long tenure, Leno positioned himself as a friend of Hollywood in search of “friends of the show.” Brooks said as much, telling viewers that Leno always extended a hand to show biz stars looking to get in touch with their audience (and sell their latest products, of course).

Crystal, who also was Leno’s first Tonight Show guest, as usual came prepared with special material. And he delivered with a “So long, farewell” Sound of Music-themed tribute in which Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Chris Paul, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey sequentially walked onstage to do their parts. Winfrey sang, “So long, farewell, you’ve really raised the bar. If you were me, you’d buy them all a car.”

Parsons, the Emmy Award-winning co-star of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, warbled that Leno’s “great success” has been dubbed “The Big Chin Theory.”

Earlier, in a pre-taped “What’s Next For Jay?” segment, an even bigger constellation of stars chipped in. Roll call in order of appearance: Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde, Kevin Bacon, Bob Costas, President Obama, Bill Maher, Matt Damon, Miley Cyrus, Mark Wahlberg, Kevin Hart, Dana Carvey, Charlie Sheen, Tyler Perry, Martha Stewart, Larry the Cable Guy and Fallon.

Sheen perhaps had the sagest advice, telling Leno, “I know that you have saved, unlike me, every penny you have ever made . . . You can just buy NBC and fire everybody.”

David Letterman, the man he’s consistently pounded in the ratings, did not make any cameo appearances. But Leno sought to douse any perceived or real antagonisms, telling viewers, “We like each other. We’ve had a long relationship.” Besides, millionaires fighting with one another are “what Republican primaries are for,” he cracked.

Leno hand-picked his closing song, requesting that Brooks perform “The Dance.” It’s a great tune with some apt lyrics, including, “I could have missed the pain. But I’d have had to miss the dance.”

Leno regularly served as a punching bag while helming Tonight. Indeed he could never measure up to Johnny. Who really could? Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel, both of whom repeatedly ridiculed Leno during the Conan O’Brien mess, are seen by most critics (including this one) as sharper, funnier, cooler late night hosts. Even if Letterman now only sporadically rises to his past glories while Kimmel increasingly cozies up to a Hollywood he used to hold in almost complete contempt.

This indeed may be Leno’s last hurrah in late night, although it’s never been a smart bet to write him off. He used to be a revered, smart ass young comic, the toast of his peers. At age 63, expect his reputation to improve with age. Fallon will learn soon enough that he has big shoes to fill -- and not just in the ratings game that Leno played so well.

You don’t survive for nearly 22 years -- most of them at the top of the late night ratings heap -- if you aren’t striking responsive chords with your audience. All of those who took delight in “never” watching Leno can now find someone else to pillory. But in the end, he came, he saw and he conquered with a common everyman touch that the “smart” money never bets on.

I wasn’t a big fan. But those who were enabled Leno to win the battle. And he can live with that.

THE RATINGS -- NBC says that Leno drew 14.6 million viewers for Thursday’s finale, his largest Tonight Show audience since May 1998 (15.0 million on the night of the Seinfeld finale). It also ranked as his fourth most-watched Tonight.

Leno’s first farewell, when he gave way to Conan O’Brien before NBC’s do-over, had 11.9 million viewers. The most-watched Tonight Show with Leno as host was on May 20, 1993, when 22.4 million viewers witnessed a special live edition from Boston tied to the Cheers finale. Several cast members were clearly inebriated on that night. Leno’s May 25, 1992 debut as Tonight host ranks second with 16.1 million viewers.

Johnny Carson’s May 22, 1992 Tonight finale averaged 42 million viewers, a mark that no late night host can ever hope to approach.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net