BURBANK, Calif. – Jay Leno has said goodbye to “The Tonight Show” before, but not like this. The comedian became tearful and choked up Thursday as he concluded what he called the “greatest 22 years of my life.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. This is tricky,” said an emotional Leno, stepping down for the second and presumably last time as host of TV’s venerable late-night program. Jimmy Fallon takes over “Tonight” in New York on Feb. 17.
Leno shared that he his mother had died in the first year he became “Tonight” host, his father in the second and then his brother.
“And after that, I was pretty much out of family. And the folks here became my family,” he said of the crew and staff of “Tonight.”
It was a tender finish to a farewell show that was mostly aiming for laughs, with traditional monologue jokes, clips from old shows and a wild assortment of celebrities helping to ease Leno’s departure.
Leno’s first departure came in 2009, when he was briefly replaced by Conan O’Brien but reclaimed the show after a messy transition.
“You’re very kind,” he told the audience Thursday. “I don’t like goodbyes. NBC does.”
Leno, 63, brought his show full circle with Billy Crystal, who was his first guest in May 1992 and his last guest Thursday. Crystal played ringmaster at one point, calling on Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Carol Burnett and others for a tribute with a “Sound of Music” song parody.
“The Big Bang Theory” star Jim Parsons’ contribution: “We’ve watched you when we’re weary. Your great success is called The Big Chin Theory.”
In a videotaped segment, President Obama said, “Jay, you’ve made a whole lot of jokes about me over the years, but don’t worry, I’m not upset,” Obama said, then said he was making Leno the U.S. ambassador to Antarctica. “Hope you have a warm coat, man.”
Garth Brooks performed his touching song “The Dance” before Leno’s farewell remarks. “Now that I brought the room down,” Leno joked, he asked Brooks to lighten it up. Another Brooks’ song, “Friends in Low Places,” closed out the show.