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Comedy maestro Jay Leno delivers emotionally charged goodbye on 'Tonight Show'

It's over. Although it may seem like déjà vu all over again, a top rated late night era ended on Thursday when Jay Leno gracefully handed the keys of The Tonight Show over to Jimmy Fallon. Watched by a staggering 14.6 million viewers, the evening included announced guests Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks book-ended by numerous surprise appearances from the likes of President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett, and Sheryl Crow.

The big dog wins again: Jay Leno delivers his legendary monologue one more time for old times sake during the final episode (No. 4,610) of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, broadcast on Feb. 7, 2014
The big dog wins again: Jay Leno delivers his legendary monologue one more time; Photography by Stacie McChesney / NBC Universal
Backstage at The Tonight Show studio in downtown Burbank, Jay Leno reflects on a remarkable 22-year legacy as host of the venerable late night institution, Jan. 22, 2014
Backstage at The Tonight Show studio in downtown Burbank, Jay Leno reflects on a remarkable 22-year legacy as host of the venerable late night institution, Jan. 22, 2014; Image Credit: Photography by Austin Hargrave / The Hollywood Reporter

Mr. Leno waited until Brooks delivered his signature piano ballad "The Dance" before addressing his attentive audience in an emotionally charged three-minute speech. After a commercial break, a framed photo of the comedian's trademark blue denim shirt with the number "22" emblazoned in bold signaled his closing remarks.

Clarifying why long-time bandleader Kevin Eubanks was not present [he was touring in France], the lone host took a deep breath and warned viewers, "Boy, this is a hard part."

Notably, the comedy maestro uncharacteristically lost his composure repeatedly in front of the camera, all the more remarkable considering his largely cool disposition when he prematurely vacated his post five years earlier. Not acclimated to speaking seriously without bursting into a patented joke, Mr. Leno fidgeted uncomfortably and attempted to quell oncoming emotions by grabbing the wood paneled desk and clasping his hands forcefully together. It was no use. Mr. Leno's voice cracked as tears flowed near instantaneously.

Looking every bit his 63 years and then some due to the stressful last week preparations, the raconteur first thanked his loyal viewers, admitting that "we wouldn't be on the air without you." Shaking his head in disbelief that he was being pushed out of his lifelong dream job for a younger [aka cooler] demographic, Mr. Leno continued, "This has been the greatest 22 years of my life" to loud applause.

Hands down, the most touching moments came when the comedian discussed the painful one-two punch of losing his mother and father just as The Tonight Show was struggling against possible cancellation in the early '90s. After big brother Patrick passed away in 2002, Mr. Leno revealed that his family was largely gone, stating that "the folks here became my family. Consequently when they went through rough times, I tried to be there for them. The last time we left this show – we had the 64 children that were born among all our staffers that married. That was a great moment."

From the lighting and audio people to the talented writers, the comedian maintained the show's wildly popular success was a team effort, unequivocally putting to rest the stigma held by detractors that he is a phony, cold-hearted company drone with little empathy.

And what about the rampant gossip following Mr. Leno's initial foray away from his coveted late night gig in 2009 for Conan O'Brien's misunderstood nine-month tenure? "When people say to me, 'Hey why didn't you go to ABC or Fox?' I didn't know anybody over there. These are the only people I've ever known."

As for incoming heir apparent Jimmy Fallon, Mr. Leno methodically gritted his teeth and offered some encouraging words: "I'm real excited for Jimmy. It's fun to kind of be the old guy and sit back and see where the next generation takes this great institution... but it really is time to go and hand it off to the next guy."

Quoting Johnny Carson, an icon who famously preferred perennial rival David Letterman, Mr. Leno graciously called his predecessor "the greatest guy to ever do this job." He closed by saying, "I bid you all a heartfelt goodbye." Heaving a huge sigh of relief, the master funnyman expertly lightened the mood: "Now that I brought the room down...hey Garth, you got anything to liven this party up?" Waiting nearby, Brooks complied with gusto, breaking out the beer buddy anthem "Friends in Low Places." A video is included to the far left of this article.

Mr. Leno's farewell is destined to go down as one of the most poignant, must-see moments in pop culture history. Sure, in a perfect world it would have been honorable if NBC had let the comedian, a bona fide workaholic, finish his network run on Friday instead of being relegated between the Super Bowl and the kick-off of the ballyhooed Winter Olympics. That's business for you.

The host of an astonishing 4,610 episodes over a 22-year period – not counting his approximate 333 episode stint beginning in September 1986 as permanent guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson or 95 episodes of the doomed Jay Leno Show in fall 2009 – Mr. Leno actually hosted more episodes than his brilliant predecessor (4531) in a shorter time span. The Guinness Book of World Records will be calling soon...

Trending on social media [e.g. Twitter] throughout the following day clearly explained the 14.6 million viewers who caught Mr. Leno's heart-tugging sign-off. Aided by opening coverage of the Winter Olympics, it was the comedian's biggest audience since a 1998 show with guest Jerry Seinfeld that aired shortly after the Seinfeld finale. The numbers are significantly greater than his 11.9 million premature farewell in 2009. While nowhere in the range of Mr. Carson's final telecast in May 1992 – an astronomical 42 million viewers admittedly earned in a non-saturated television atmosphere – Mr. Leno nevertheless soundly defeated his late night competitors.

With a growing list of stand-up dates on the horizon [it is maddening locating them all; an official events website is sorely needed], he has no intentions of developing mold within his joke arsenal although he could very well experience a bit of late night comedy withdrawal. Wily like a fox, the entertainer's saga is far from over. A hearty thanks for the memories, Mr. Leno.

  • DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Andy Griffith and Don Knotts were seemingly joined at the hip in real life much like their legendary characters on the beloved "Andy Griffith Show." Lost for nearly 50 years, a video clip from a CBS variety special entitled "The Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Jim Nabors Show" is now streaming on YouTube. It features the actors in living color reprising Sheriff Andy Taylor and Barney Fife on a glorious soundstage. Released in October 1965, mere months after Knotts controversially departed "The Andy Griffith Show" for a short-lived career on the big screen, the video proves that the actors were masters of comedic timing and relished performing together in front of live audiences.

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