Tears as Jay Leno signs off

MICHAEL IDATO
Last updated 16:24 07/02/2014
Sandra Bullock, Jay Leno
Getty Images

BIG MOMENT: A tearful Sandra Bullock, appearing on Leno's second to last show, thanked him for his kindness and generosity.

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Comedian Jay Leno said an emotional goodbye to the Tonight Show on Thursday with a star-studded farewell led by actor Billy Crystal, after hosting the NBC late night programme for more than 20 years.

Leno, 63, who took over one of US broadcast television's marquee programmes in 1992 from Johnny Carson, came out to a standing ovation from the audience of friends and family, shaking hands with many as he did in each show. The show will now be hosted by Jimmy Fallon.

"I don't like goodbyes; NBC does," Leno quipped when opening his monologue, poking fun at the network that orchestrated his departure from the show in 2009 only to reinstall him back as host less than a year later.

His final monologue was peppered with then-and-now reflections on the changes since his tenure at Tonight began.

"When I started hosting, Justin Bieber wasn't even born yet. That's why we call those the good ol' days," Leno said, poking fun at the troubled Canadian teen pop star.

The silver-haired host ended the show on an emotional note, saying, "This has been the greatest 22 years of my life," as he rested his hand on his chin with tears welling in his eyes.

"It really is time for me to go and hand it off to the next guy," the comedian added.

Leno's departure and Fallon's hire marks NBC's second attempt to transition the Tonight Show into a programme appealing to the 18-34 year old demographic coveted by advertisers while still maintaining its top spot in the ratings.

Fallon, 39, will be taking the Tonight Show back to its New York roots for the first time since 1972, when NBC moved the show with Carson to Burbank, California. Fallon will begin his new hosting duties on February 17 on the network owned by Comcast.

STAR-STUDDED FAREWELL

Leno ended his long-running late night tenure with one of the guests from his first Tonight Show on May 25, 1992, actor-comedian Crystal, who praised Leno for giving a comic's levity to current events and "making us sleep better at night".

Crystal led a comic rendition of So Long, Farewell from The Sound of Music that included guest appearances from Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Carol Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, NBA basketball player Chris Paul and Kim Kardashian. Country music star Garth Brooks was the musical guest, performing two songs including his hit, Friends in Low Places.

Leno also received pre-recorded farewells from celebrities such as actors Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Sheen, sports broadcaster Bob Costas and his successor Jimmy Fallon. Even President Barack Obama, who in 2009 became the first sitting president to appear on a late night talk show when he joined Leno on Tonight, delivered a pre-recorded goodbye.

In his penultimate show, a tearful Sandra Bullock seemed to speak for everyone as she teared up and thanked him for his kindness and generosity.

"You were always so welcoming and every single person on your crew was that way consistently, and I just felt special even when I felt very insecure," Bullock told Leno.

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"And everyone, I think, in this room and in this country, has felt that every day that you've been in their homes."

In cultural terms, the moment is enormous. In American television history true "talk show" titans can be counted on one hand: Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, David Letterman and, of course, Jay Leno.

Jack Paar's departure from the Tonight Show in 1962 was marked with a cue card, which said simply "no more to come". Leno's predecessor Johnny Carson delivered his own eulogy, talking to his audience down the barrel of the camera.

Leno's departure has been marked with curious little fanfare, though the US media are devouring the occasion.

LONG HISTORY

The Tonight Show first aired on NBC in 1954 from New York with host Steve Allen. Jack Paar hosted the show from 1957 until Carson took over in 1962, and held his reign for 30 years, before departing in 1992.

Leno led the Tonight Show to the top of the late night ratings in 1995 and has held off competitors David Letterman's Late Show on CBS and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live.

The show only lost its grip atop the ratings when Conan O'Brien took over the show for nine months in 2009-2010.

Over Leno's 22 years, he has been joined on the couch by celebrities, politicians, athletes and pop culture figures. Notable guests include Tom Cruise, Betty White, Hugh Grant, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, first lady Michelle Obama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and most recently, Miley Cyrus.

Leno's stint at Tonight has not been without controversy. NBC picked Leno over Letterman, then the host of NBC's Late Night talk show, to replace Carson in 1992, resulting in a very public, bitter feud.

Letterman left the network for its competitor CBS, and launched his own talk show in the same timeslot as Tonight, going head-to-head with Leno and initially beating him in the ratings.

NBC appointed O'Brien in 2004 to be Leno's successor when he left the show in 2008 to host his own primetime programme on the network.

But in 2009, after O'Brien's short helm at Tonight and Leno's primetime show suffered from poor ratings, NBC attempted to push Tonight Show into a later timeslot behind Leno's show, forcing O'Brien to end his contract with NBC, and Leno to return to Tonight less than a year later.

The Tonight Show currently draws about 3.9 million viewers per episode. In Leno's final week, the Tonight Show drew an average of nearly 5 million viewers per episode.

- Reuters and Sydney Morning Herald

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