“I don’t like goodbyes,” he said. “NBC does.”
The lesser part of those years, of course, include that tempestuous first year after taking over for Johnny Carson — and that brief stint in 2009-10 when he lost the show to Conan O’Brien. Leno’s complicated relationship with his employer is nothing he shied away from, especially toward the end of his NBC run, and gags about it came from him and others throughout the hour.
“Tonight is our last show for real,” he continued. “I don’t need to be fired three times. I get the hint.”
As for Leno’s rapid-fire final monologue of jokes, targets included some nostalgic ones from the past two decades — “Do you know the saddest part of all? O.J. never found the real killers.” — and the ultra contemporary. (Despite his limited time in the spotlight, Justin Bieber found his way into the night’s broadcast on more than a few occasions.)
He also had one last rare on-air word for CBS rival David Letterman. “We both like each other,” he said. “We’ve had a long relationship. We realize people don’t want to turn on TV and see millionaires fighting. That’s what republican primaries are for.”
The surprise guests who took the stage came later, but there were some surprises for the host. Over a dozen favored guests and friends appeared in a pre-taped package of advice for the semi-retired comedian.
Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde, President Obama, Bill Maher, Matt Damon, Miley Cyrus, a sexually explicit Martha Stewart and a handful of others led into incoming Tonight host Jimmy Fallon. He extended a thanks to his predecessor and an open invite for Leno to come home whenever he wanted — at least to tell a few jokes.
Billy Crystal, the night’s only official guest alongside Garth Brooks, bookended his sincere salute to his longtime friend with his famously theatrical humor. Crystal burst on stage with two men in mover uniforms, slapping stickers on all the things that will all be struck from the studio as early as tonight. Before Crystal and Leno reminisced at the desk, Crystal did appear to get a little misty when recalling the invite to be on Leno’s first show.
“You work so hard because you love this job, and more than anybody I know, you love being a comedian,” he said. “It’s been such a thrill to watch you be one of America’s friends, who they turn to before they go to sleep at night.”
But the sentiment couldn’t last forever. Crystal dug into Leno — and, in the process, NBC — with a musical salute set to The Sound of Music‘s “So long, Farewell.” It’s appropriate, for sure, but the network’s recent primetime production of the musical might have played some role in the song choice.
Crystal offered a few lines of repurposed lyrics, before the guests started coming out — each one a bit more famous than the last. Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Chris Paul, Sheryl Crow and Jim Parsons each sang a lyric before Crystal brought out the big guns: Carol Burnett and Oprah Winfrey. Burnett did her trademark Tarzan yell and Winfrey ended the song with her own spin.
“So long, farewell, you really raised the bar,” she sang, quite well. “If you were me, you’d buy them all a car.”
And that’s where the laughter started to wind down. After Brooks sang a personal request of Leno’s, “The Dance,” the host took one last sit at the desk.
“This is the hard part,” he said, with a crack in his voice and dewy eyes. “This is tricky. I have to thank the audience. We wouldn’t be on the air without you people. This has been the greatest 22 years of my life.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. I got to meet presidents, astronauts, movie stars,” he continued, distinctive chin trembling. “First year of this show, I lost my mom; second year, I lost my dad. Then my brother died. I was pretty much out of family. The folks here became my family … When people to say to me, ‘Why didn’t you go to ABC? Why didn’t you go to Fox?’ I didn’t know anybody there. These are the only people I’ve ever known.”
Leno ended by quoting Carson, who he called “the greatest” to ever have his job, mirroring his own Tonight signoff: “I bid you all a heartfelt goodbye.” But in an effort to not end on a somber note, he threw it back to Brooks, who launched into a rendition of “Friends in Low Places.”
Low places might be a stretch, but Leno has no shortage of friends.