Leno, 63, who took over one of U.S. broadcast television's
marquee programs 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.
"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 program 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
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.
[to top of second column]
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
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
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
NBC appointed O'Brien in 2004 to be Leno's successor when he left
the show in 2008 to host his own primetime program 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.
(Writing by Piya Sinha-Roy; editing by
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