NEW YORK (AP) — Make way for Jimmy Fallon,
“Tonight Show” host Jay Leno ended a stellar if sometimes stormy run Thursday night with high emotion at concluding what he termed “the greatest 22 years of my life.”
Calling himself “the luckiest guy in the world,” Leno went out on top, which was where he stayed for most of his stretch as the successor to “King of Late Night” Johnny Carson.
His exit, not entirely by choice, now clears the deck for yet another chapter of the 60-year-old talk show, with Fallon taking over as “Tonight” moves back to New York from its longtime Los Angeles home on Feb. 17.
“You’re very kind,” Leno told his audience at the start of his last monologue. “I don’t like goodbyes. NBC does. I don’t care for them.”
He had said goodbye to “The Tonight Show” before.
His first departure came in 2009, when he was briefly replaced by Conan O’Brien but reclaimed the show after a messy transition and O’Brien’s lackluster ratings. In ’09, he was moving to a prime-time show on NBC; this time he’s out the door, and has said he’ll focus on comedy clubs and his beloved car collection.
“I don’t need to get fired three times,” he cracked. “I get the hint.”
Looking sharp in a black suit and bright blue tie, Leno was greeted by a standing ovation from the VIP audience. The typically self-contained comic betrayed a bit of nervousness, stumbling over a few lines in his monologue as he looked back comically.
“When I started hosting, Justin Bieber wasn’t even born yet,” Leno marveled. “That’s why we called those ‘the good old days.'”
The worst part of leaving NBC’s employ, he joked: “Now I’ll have to sign up for Obamacare.”
But later Leno was serious, even choking up, when he shared that he’d lost his mother the first year he became “Tonight” host, his dad the second and then his brother.
“And after that I was pretty much out of family. And the folks here became my family,” he said of the crew and staff of “Tonight.”
The tender moments had a heightened effect on a show that was mostly aiming for laughs, with traditional monologue jokes, clips from old shows and a wild assortment of celebrities helping him close the book.
Leno brought his show full circle with Billy Crystal, who was his first guest in May 1992 and his last guest Thursday. Crystal played ringmaster at one point, calling on Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Carol Burnett and others for a musical tribute to Jay with a “Sound of Music” song parody.
“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye. If Fallon tanks you’ll be back here next year,” sang Jack Black.
“The Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parson’s contribution: “We’ve watched you when we’re weary. Your great success is called the big chin theory.”
In a videotaped segment, celebrities offered career advice to Leno.
“Why would I give a (expletive) about what he does? He’s a grown man,” said Mark Wahlberg.
President Barack Obama, like other politicians a favorite target of Leno’s, struck back in his clip.
“Jay, you’ve made a whole lot of jokes about me over the years, but do not worry, I’m not upset,” Obama said, adding that he was making Leno the U.S. ambassador to Antarctica. “Hope you have a warm coat, funnyman.”
Crystal sang Leno’s praises during the show, saying the late-night host made America feel a little better at bedtime and invoking his predecessor, Johnny Carson. Leno’s “Tonight” tenure was second in length only to Carson’s 30 years.
“You were handed the baton by one of the all-time greats. But once it was in your grasp, you ran the race,” Crystal said. He and Leno, longtime friends, reminisced about the old days, with Leno recalling how Crystal and other comedians visiting his town, Boston, stayed in Leno’s apartment.
“You’re calling it an apartment. I’m calling it a bomb site,” Crystal joked.
Leno told how he was poised to make his network debut on Dean Martin’s show in 1974 when news came that President Richard Nixon had resigned in the Watergate scandal. Leno’s appearance didn’t happen.
“Making me the last guy screwed by Nixon,” Leno said.
Garth Brooks performed his touching song “The Dance” before Leno’s likewise touching farewell remarks.
“Now that I brought the room down,” Leno joked, he asked Brooks to lighten it up. Another Brooks’ song, “Friends in Low Places,” closed out the show.
Leno, 63, has said he plans to continue playing comedy clubs, indulging his passion for cars and doing such TV work as comes his way — other than hosting on late-night.
“I’m real excited for Jimmy Fallon,” Leno told his audience. “It’s kind of fun to be the old guy and sit back here and see where the next generation takes this great institution.”
AP writers Lynn Elber and Derrik J. Lang contributed to this report.