NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater
NBC Photo: Paul Drinkwater
"Goodnight, everybody," Jay Leno began when it appeared doubtful that the rabid standing ovation would ever cease.
After more than a minute of hoots and applause, the audience finally quieted down so that Leno, after 17 years behind the wheel of the late-night staple, could welcome the crowd to "the exciting season finale of the Tonight Show."
But as the Leno faithful know, it was the easygoing charm and spot-on delivery of the prominent-chinned, uniquely coiffed comedian who kept millions tuning in night after night. (That and a certain 1995 mega-get named Hugh Grant, whom Billy Crystal paid tribute to in his farewell song for tipping the ratings in Jay's favor forevermore.)
Taking the reins from Leno is Conan O'Brien, who sat down with his predecessor tonight—a far warmer welcome than the one Leno received when he succeeded Johnny Carson, who reputedly didn't approve of NBC's decision, in 1992.
"It's a compliment to you," O'Brien told Leno, "because I keep hearing this over and over, in my 800 interviews in three days—'You've got big shoes to fill.'"
"Someday in my career, I want to fill little shoes," he quipped.
After much was said and jested over, Leno sent O'Brien on his way with these kind words: "I couldn't be happier. You were the only choice, you were the perfect choice, you have been an absolute gentleman.
"I agree, Conan rocks," the outgoing host said in response to one audience member's whoop. "Good luck next week, my friend."
Then it was on to a performance by James Taylor and the aforementioned "big moment" that Leno promised to close things out.
"Now comes the hard part," the 59-year-old funnyman said as he launched into a series of thank-yous, extending his appreciation to everyone from Kevin Eubanks and the band to the writers to the PR department at NBC to his wife, Mavis, who was sitting in the audience.
"People ask if I'm sad handing the show over," Leno said. "No, honest, I'm very happy. I'm thrilled. When I took this from Johnny, this show was the No. 1 show on late-night television. When handing it to Conan, it's No. 1, which means I get my security deposit back."
Then he introduced the 68 kids (ages baby to 17) who have been born to Tonight Show staffers during his run.
"That's what I'd like my legacy to be," Leno said. "When these kids grow up and they go, 'Hey, Mom and Dad, where did you guys meet?' they're going to say they met on the stage of the Tonight Show."
"Thank you everybody, thank you for watching," he concluded. "Please give Conan as much support as you've given me throughout the years. Good night, we'll see you in September."
(Originally published May 29, 2009, at 9:30 p.m. PT)