Burbank, Calif. Jay Leno wrapped up 17 years as “Tonight” host Friday with jabs at favorite targets, including politicians and his own network, and with an unusual touch of sentiment.
“Now comes the hard part,” Leno said as the NBC show drew to a close.
After reminiscing briefly about his time as host, Leno said he had an answer to those who asked him about his “Tonight” legacy.
He invited the audience to “take a look” at the children born to show staffers during his tenure — all 68 of them, babies to teenagers, who filled the studio stage.
“That’s what I’d like my legacy to be,” Leno said, his voice thickened by emotion. “When these kids grow up and they go, ‘Hey, mom and dad, where did you guys meet?’, they’re going to say they met on the stage of ‘The Tonight Show.’”
It was a self-effacing, homespun ending that suited Leno, who’s often said he wants to appeal to the American mainstream and doesn’t fret about his appeal to critics or other arbiters of what’s cool.
But he noted proudly that he took over the top-rated late-night show from Johnny Carson and was passing it on with the same No. 1 ranking to Conan O’Brien, who begins as host Monday.
“Which means I get my security deposit back,” quipped Leno.
Giving O’Brien a pre-debut boost, Leno welcomed him Friday as his final guest.
“You were the perfect choice. You’ve been an absolute gentlemen in private and in the press,” Leno told O’Brien, lauding him for his “sharp” material.
“Conan rocks,” a studio audience member shouted. “I agree, Conan rocks,” Leno replied.
Leno was ushered on stage Friday with a Jimi Hendrix-flavored version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by bandleader Kevin Eubanks.
“Welcome to the exciting season finale of ‘The Tonight Show,’” said Leno, greeted by a standing ovation. “I want to thank all the people who made it possible: Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.”