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Billy Crystal surprises Jay Leno as ‘The Tonight Show’ ends in style

Billy Crystal was Jay's first guest May 25, 1992 and he was his last Feb. 7, 2014.
Billy Crystal was Jay's first guest May 25, 1992 and he was his last Feb. 7, 2014.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The highlight of Jay Leno’s final telecast of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” broadcast Feb. 6, 2014, didn’t come at the beginning of the show, nor at the end. It was all about the brilliance of Billy Crystal. There’s no question that Crystal was the perfect first guest when Jay took over the reigns, on May 25, 1992, from late night icon, Johnny Carson. And so it was only right that he should be Leno’s choice as his last guest. Houston viewers saw the broadcast on KPRC-TV, where the show has been seen here for the past 22 years.

First surprise Jay found was that Crystal didn’t approach the guest couch first; he entered the studio accompanied by two helpers, who put red “Burbank Moving Company” stickers on many parts of the stage, the furniture, the plants, and bandleader Rickey Minor’s forehead.

Crystal, instead of going to the couch, went to center stage and addressed the audience and shared poignant thoughts, and some clever jokes, far better than the ones the writers had crafted for Jay’s final monologue, which lacked much. Then again, you can’t blame the staff writers; they were out of a job as of tonight, so they likely weren’t at their best.

When Billy stated what Jay had meant to him personally, to late night television and what he meant to the legend that is “The Tonight Show,” he was speaking primarily of Carson, and not at all of Conan. Not even a word was said about Steve Allen or Jack Paar, two names unfortunately unknown or unremembered for at least 30 years now. Sentimentally, Crystal concluded with, “A promise made. A promise kept” of his commitment to be there for his longtime friend.

After the serious part, Crystal finally went to the desk and visited with Leno for some more good memories. Crystal joked, “So you’re moving to 9:00 pm now, right?” The audience responded with polite chuckles, albeit wistful ones. Still hard to believe he wouldn’t be there...tomorrow night.

Next, Crystal produced for Jay’s review his old “Executive Planner” from 1974, where he’d written his gig in Boston, plus Jay’s name (misspelled “Lenno”) and Jay’s phone number because it was an unwritten rule that because Jay lived in Boston, the only comic among the young, struggling ones not to be living in New York, you were welcome to stay in Jay’s apartment, even if you had not yet met him. The fraternity of the (then) “young Turks” were all up and coming, struggling, and every penny saved meant a meal not missed.

Jay’s been such a late-night fixture on television, that it might be easy to forget that he was once a stand-up comic, just like the rest of the guys, hoping to get asked by Carson to come over and sit down, the best affirmation that the audience had liked you. Jay was curious and excited to see what surprises Billy had in store.

Billy’s surprise was first rate: when Rickey Minor kicked off the familiar “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music,” Crystal introduced “The Shut-Your-Trapp family singers” who accompanied Billy singing (nicely) some new words to the classic song.

But when it came time for the verses, the curtain rose and first out was Jack Black, who sang something, danced wildly and went to the desk. Next out of the chute was the one and only, Kim Kardashian, who sang the words, “...So long, farewell, to Jay, I told my folks, Now I won’t be the butt of Leno’s jokes,” then the LA Clippers’s, injured forward Chris Paul came out and sang to crowd approval. Next up, Sheryl Crow’s voice was almost apologetic, “So long, farewell, I give a little wave, but not for Jay, I wanna get on Dave. ” Ouch.

Then, Jim Parsons was up, “Your big success is called The Big Chin Theory,” followed by more than snappy dance moves. Parsons was followed by legendary Carol Burnett, “So long, farewell, here’s a what-the-hell, for your last show, I’ll do the Tarzan yell.” How do you follow Carol? With Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey sang, “So long, farewell, you really raised the bar, if you were me, you’d buy them all a car!” and the audience went wild.

Billy closed it out with “The time has come to end the late night talking, into the sunset, now we’ll see Jay walking.” And as the singers crooned, “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye,” you found the lump in your throat to see the emotion Leno had been holding back. He found it hard to talk but he made it through.

“This has been the best 22 years of my life,” as Leno said with tears in his eyes, and cracks in his voice, cried when he talked about his “producers, writers and a lot of talented people who made him look smarter than he was.”

It’s not certain how many viewers knew this until he shared it but Jay said, “The first year I had this show, I lost my mom. The second year, I lost my dad, and then later, my brother died and I was pretty much out of family. So, these people became my family. You know, recently we showed the 64 children who were born of staffers while we’ve all been on this show together.

Continuing, “Some people asked why I didn’t go to CBS or ABC and do a show. I told them, ‘I don’t know anybody over there.’ It’s these people who are the only people I’ve ever known. I’m also proud to say this is a union show, and I have never worked with a more professional group of people in my entire life. “

Magnanimously, Leno said, “I’m real excited for Jimmy Fallon. It’s kind of fun to sit back here and be the old guy who gets to see the next generation do well. It really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy”...Quoting Johnny Carson, “I’ll say, ‘I bid you all a heartfelt good night.’ And now that I’ve brought the room down, hey Garth, you got anything to liven this party up?”

Turns out, Garth had just the perfect song. You guessed it: “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places.” The audience stood on their feet, clapped their hands, sang along and Jay smiled, standing looking at the band, and clapped like the anvil of pressure, stress, and worry was lifted at last. It’s a lot of hard work to bring a show together that America has counted on for decades to be their late-night companion. And he’s long been a choice of those who thought it wouldn’t be easy to follow the icon Johnny Carson was. But he has.

For the week of Jan. 27-31, an NBC press release announced that: “Leno delivered his biggest overall audience and 18-49 viewership since 2010.” If you’re going to go, you might as well go out on top.

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