As he bade farewell to "the best job in show business," Jay Leno cast aside his trademark stoicism Thursday night and broke down. It was a moving and unexpected turn of events, capping a week of shows that brought back favorite guests, carried "best of" packages and showed off his comedic achievements but, until now, had not struck much of a sentimental note.
Calling himself "the luckiest guy in the world," who got to meet presidents and astronauts and movie stars, Leno told the audience that he lost his mother in 1992, the first year he hosted the show. The following year, he lost his father. Soon after, he lost his brother.
"After that, I was pretty much out of family, and the folks here became my family," Leno said, trying to fight back his tears. "Consequently, when they went through hard times, I tried to be here for them. People say, 'Why don't you go to ABC or Fox?' But I didn't know anybody over there. These are the people I know."
Leno, 63, took a breath and continued: "It's fun to kind of be the old guy and sit back here and see where the next generation takes this great institution.... It really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy. It really is."
Leno tried to end his goodbye speech by quoting the famous farewell of his predecessor, Johnny Carson: "I bid you all a heartfelt good night." The words tumbled out awkardly, but the audience knew exactly where he was going. Leno then turned to his good friend Garth Brooks, the night's musical guest, to liven things up with his song "Friends in Low Places."
Leno may have "brought the room down" momentarily, as he noted, but the whole night wasn't a sobfest. Billy Crystal, Leno's good friend for 40 years and his first guest, led a star-studded rendition of "So Long, Farewell" that packed in several surprises and a few laughs.
Who were Crystal's "Shut Your Von Trapp Family Singers?" Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, NBA star Chris Paul, Sheryl Crowe, Jim Parsons, Carol Burnett and Oprah. Burnett brought the house down with her Tarzan yell, and Oprah killed it with her lyrics, "You really raised the bar, if you were me, you'd buy them all a car!" By the time Crystal finished the song off, Leno was visibly shaking.
For weeks, it's been obvious that Leno doesn't really want to leave the show he loves so much, though this departure has been handled very differently this time. Leno was pushed out in 2009 when NBC replaced him with Conan O'Brien. Nine months later, after a huge ratings drop, a vindicated Leno was back at the helm.
In his monologues, Leno hasn't been shy about expressing himself. Even on his last night, he got right to it: "I don't like goodbyes. NBC does. I don't care for them."
Then he added: "I don't need to get fired three times. I get the hint. I get the hint."
When he started hosting the show 22 years ago, Leno said: "Marijuana was illegal, and you could smoke wherever you wanted." He also noted there was no Craigslist for serial killers to meet victims, men had to find their porn at newsstands and Justin Bieber hadn't been born.
"That's why we call that the good old days," he joked.
Later in an A-list-filled taped segment, celebrities gave Leno advice on what to do with his free time. The comedian is a self-declared workaholic who performed 100 stand-up gigs last year in addition to his nightly show.
Sitting in his old desk at "The Office," Steve Carrell nudged Leno to "be satisifed with what you have accomplished ... and don't dwell on the past." Bob Costas told Leno he could relate to losing his job to a younger man and showed him how to cope with a large bottle of Jack Daniel's. Charlie Sheen figured that, unlike him, Leno has probably saved all his money and could "just buy NBC and fire everybody."
President Obama also joked that he was not upset about Leno’s many swipes and would now name him "the new ambassador to Antarctica."
Bill Maher told Leno to enjoy his time off and spend it with his friends and family. Then he turned around and filmed a "Welcome back" message Leno can use when the "Tonight Show" ratings tank and NBC wants to bring him back again.
Indeed, where it counts the most, Leno is going out on top. According to Nielsen ratings, nearly 5 million viewers tuned in for each of Leno's shows this week, trouncing his competitors David Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC.
The last time Leno bid adieu, in May 2009, nearly 12 million viewers tuned in. That time, Leno turned out the lights by bringing 68 staff members on stage and talking about how their lives had changed during his tenure.
On Thursday night, he simply joined his buddy Brooks on stage, looked at the camera and said: "Thank you, everybody. Watch Jimmy Fallon. See you later. I'm coming home, honey."
"The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" begins Feb. 17 from Rockefeller Center in New York.