Jay Leno’s last “Tonight Show,” which aired Thursday, was as proudly unhip as the ’90s-style stonewashed denim the host wears when he’s off-camera.
There were jokes about O.J. Simpson and Hugh Grant. “Justin Bieber wasn’t even born yet,” Leno said, reflecting back on his early days as host in 1992. “That’s why we call them ‘the good old days.’” There were old songs from Garth Brooks. There was Billy Crystal waving around a 1974 datebook in which he’d once scribbled Leno’s Boston phone number when they were both struggling young performers; it led both men to riff on Nixon and Muhammad Ali.
And despite an impressive, if cornball, musical tribute led by Crystal — a parody of “The Sound of Music” number “So Long, Farewell” that featured Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Jim Parsons, Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, Sheryl Crow, Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey, — it wasn’t until Leno’s tearful speech at the end that this final show felt worthy of shelf space in television’s historical vault.
“Boy this is the hard part,” Leno said, quickly verklempt. He thanked his audience and talked about how lucky he felt to have interviewed “presidents, astronauts, movie stars. ...” But he was most appreciative of his hard-working, union-labor staff: “The first year of this show I lost my mom; the second year I lost my dad. Then my brother died and after that I was pretty much out of family. The folks here became my family,” Leno said. “When people say to me, ‘Hey, why don’t you go to ABC, why don’t you go to Fox?’ — [but] I didn’t know anybody over there. These are the only people I know.”
A dark subtext remained clear in the running gags, too, about getting old, about being dumped. There’s the one about how many months will go by before NBC blinks and brings him back. There’s the one about asking why the network would retire someone getting top ratings? (Beyond ratings, there’s quality — these last several shows have been better than Leno’s usual bland serving of comfort food, mostly for the nostalgia trips, as he and his guests bantered about the past.)
But the man himself seemed honest when he signed off in the final few minutes. “I’m really excited for Jimmy Fallon,” Leno said, of his replacement (who takes over Feb. 17). “It really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy — it really is.”
After referencing his predecessor Johnny Carson’s parting words (“I bid you all a heartfelt goodnight”) and asking for another song from Garth Brooks, Leno was done. Then Fallon opened his “Late Night” monologue, immediately after, with a quip about how Leno’s last shows have been so successful in the ratings that NBC has decided to extend his farewell another week. Meanwhile, over on Conan O’Brien’s show on TBS (remember him?), O’Brien, who will never let us forget the last “Tonight Show” succession saga, made a swipe at the proceedings by wrapping it into his Sochi Olympics jokes: “It’s a big deal— NBC will finally get to show somebody who’s okay with passing the torch.”
We’re now at a point where late-night TV can feel like a Möbius strip covered in (self-) reflective material. Let us all go to bed tonight and dream of waking up in a world where the jokes are about something other than hosting a TV show.