Jay Leno ends Tonight Show run: Don’t cry for me, America

Jay Leno's first guest on May 25, 1992 was his last guest Thursday: comedian Billy Crystal. Photo: Chris Haston/NBC.

SAN DIEGO, February 7, 2014 – Jay Leno went out on top after a 22-year-run hosting “The Tonight Show” on NBC Thursday.  Leno bid farewell with far less emotion than his predecessor Johnny Carson, although he did choke up during his closing moments on the show as thanked the audience, recalling the death of family members during the early years of the show, how the staff had become his family, and how fortunate he had been to host the show.

“I am the luckiest guy in the world. I got to meet presidents and astronauts and movie stars. It’s just been incredible, ” said Leno.

“People say to me, ‘Why didn’t you go to ABC, to Fox?’ I don’t know anybody over there. These are the only people I have ever known. I’m also proud to say, this is a union show. I have never worked with a more professional group of people in my life. They get paid good money and they do a good job.”

“I’m really excited for Jimmy Fallon,” Leno concluded. “It’s fun to be the old guy and see where the next generation takes this great institution. I’m so glad I got to be a part of it, but it really is time to go and hand it to the next guy. And, in conclusion, I want to quote Johnny Carson: “I bid you all a heartfelt good night.”

Chris Issak says goodbye to Jay Leno on the show January 14, 2014. Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC
Chris Issak says goodbye to Jay Leno on the show January 14, 2014. Photo: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Country singer Garth Brooks closed the show out playing “Friends In Low Places.”

Leno’s final guest officially bidding him farewell on behalf of America was his first guest on May 25, 1992: comedian Billy Crystal. Crystal walked down memory lane with Leno about their 40 years in show business, then saluted him with a star-studded edition of “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music” performed by the “Shut Your Von Trapp Singers” including performances by Jack Black, Kim Kardashian, Carol Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, and Oprah Winfrey.

Numerous other famous faces wished Leno farewell throughout the show, from President Barack Obama who appointed Leno Ambassador to Antarctica, to Charlie Sheen, who told Leno he should “Buy NBC, and fire everybody.” Winning.

Leno’s ratings have been winning for NBC in his final weeks on “The Tonight Show,” up 30 percent over a year ago and its most viewed season in five years, crushing competitors David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. Letterman has been airing repeats, probably a smart tactic.

Unlike Johnny Carson who left the public stage when he left “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno isn’t going to drive off into the sunset in one of his many collectible automobiles. He already has more than 100 live stand-up comedy club performances booked, one no doubt somewhere near you. Several media observers speculate he could develop an online venture similar to his friend Jerry Seinfeld. So the changing of the guard between Leno and his heir Jimmy Fallon is far less dramatic than it was between Carson and Leno.

Also far less dramatic than the disastrous and short-lived replacement of Leno by Conan O’Brien. Leno never supported O’Brien the way he has Fallon, and O’Brien’s brand of skewed humor turned out to be an acquired taste that a lot of “The Tonight Show” audience never acquired.

Fallon’s ratings during his last few weeks on “Late Night” have also been about 30 percent higher than a year ago, his highest since 2009 and paralleling Leno’s success. Fallon’s allure for NBC is that he draws far more viewers in the 18 to 49 year old age group that advertisers covet. His share of those viewers is likely to surpass Jay Leno, possibly siphoning viewers away from Kimmel. Older viewers are likely to give Fallon a chance rather than abandon their NBC habit for David Letterman.

But expect Fallon to take some shots from the critics before he hits his stride on “The Tonight Show.” Leno did when he took over for Johnny Carson. “A nervous Mr. Leno fumbled the occasion,” wrote the New York Times. “The new host looked basically relieved that the whole thing was over,” snipped Newsday. The Boston Globe called Leno “underwhelming,” calling a long run unlikely.

But one critic saw Leno’s potential. Writing for Variety on June 1, 1992, Van Gordon Sauter observed: “Leno is a smart trouper who knows his medium and his audience. Even with the fragmentation of the time period and the talk genre, one suspects he will assemble a commercially credible audience and achieve longevity. And for contemporary television, that’s anything that lasts longer than Prince Andrew and Fergie.” Let the record show this royal marriage ended just short of 10 years. Leno made it 22 years.

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Media Migraine and Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +

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