In the final moments of his 22 years as host of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno actually seemed to succumb to affectingly genuine human emotions. But then, how could he not when serenaded (to special lyrics for “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music”) by actor-comic Billy Crystal, who’d been Leno’s guest on his first “Tonight.” Crystal brought out a surprise chorus of stars that included Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey to serenade Leno “Goodbye.”
To season the sublime with the ridiculous, Kim Kardashian showed up, too, though earlier Leno got through an entire monologue without mentioning her. Or did he perhaps sneak in a reference subliminally? He did do a Justin Bieber joke or two, of course, and there was the requisite mention of Anthony Weiner and the usual rogues’ gallery.
Many objects of Leno’s jokes over the years were members of the “Fifteen-Minute Club”, people fulfilling Andy Warhol’s inescapable prediction that in the future, everyone would be famous for a quarter hour. That future has been hanging around for years now, and the final Leno Tonight show pointed up how really tired and tattered it has become—and how badly we need a new one.
It’s probably good that when the Tonight Show resumes after the Olympics, with new host Jimmy Fallon at the helm, it will have been transplanted back to New York whence it originated back in the 1950s, a “back to the past” move. For Tonight, the more may be the merrier where changes are concerned. Nobody stood up to argue when Leno said it was time for him to “move on.”
Leno did get uncharacteristically misty, and his voice cracked, during his final speech to the nation, such as it was, during which he first thanked “the audience” who had kept him in first place for much of his Tonight tenure. “You folks have just been incredibly loyal,” he said, calling his run “the greatest 22 years of my life.” At times he sounded like a departing president stepping down from the highest office in the land; at others, he evoked echoes of Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech in 1939.
Gehrig called himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” though afflicted with a crippling disease; Leno called himself “the luckiest guy in the world” though momentarily out of a job and approaching 65. Touchingly, he told the audience why he said “no” in the past, and presumably is still saying it, when friends suggested he go to Fox or some other network. “I don’t know anyone over there,” he said. He stressed how his staff and crew at NBC have become his own extended family, especially since his mother died the first year he was hosting Tonight, and his father died the second year.
“I was pretty much out of family,” Leno said, in a way that seemed honestly touching, as it did when Leno declared himself “proud to say this is a union show” in a media universe where that is far less often the case than it used to be.
Extending an olive branch to the next generation, Leno said of his successor, “I’m real excited for Jimmy Fallon” and said he was finding it “fun to be the old guy” who sits back and watches youth take over the world. Leno also sounded gracious when saluting his predecessor, Johnny Carson, to whom history will likely be far more generous than it will be to Leno. He repeated Carson’s benediction “I bid you a heartfelt good night,” his voice cracking as he barely got the words out.
Earlier, Leno showed himself ever the company man when the big production number came to an end, the audience rose in a huge ovation, the stage was crowded with stars who’d come to salute him, and Leno matter-of-factly ignored all the commotion and calmly cut to a commercial break, as he’d done countless times before. The bills have to be paid no matter what, and Jay Leno is nothing if not practical.
Crystal is always a sure-fire talk-show guest and he proved an ideal choice. There was a mercifully low-key charm to a brief sequence in which Crystal reminisced about his and Leno’s early days as aspiring comedians in Boston, where their careers began; Leno was so little-known that clubs kept getting his name wrong on their marquees. Leno warmed to the memories of an era that was much less lucrative for him, but perhaps those were more satisfying times.