WASHINGTON: Talk show host Jay Leno bids farewell to his remarkable 22-year run at the top of the late-night US television heap on Thursday when he signs off from NBC’s “The Tonight Show” for the last time.
Country music titan Garth Brooks and comedian Billy Crystal — Leno’s first guest back in May 1992 — have been lined up as special guests on what the network is billing “Jay’s historic farewell episode.”
The silver-haired, square-jawed comedian and classic-car enthusiast is a national institution, famous for skewering hapless politicians in his opening monologue and welcoming celebrity guests for breezy interviews.
But this week has been all about sentimentality, with the indefatigable Betty White, 92, appearing Monday, country star Lyle Lovett playing a sad ballad Tuesday, and actress Sandra Bullock shedding tears Wednesday.
In a generational changing of the guard, baby-boomer Leno, 63, is giving way to Jimmy Fallon, 39, a Generation X’er who previously hosted the “Late Night” show that follows “The Tonight Show.”
What’s more, from February 17, the show will be telecast from New York, where it was located before it moved to Los Angeles in 1972 when the legendary Johnny Carson helmed the program.
It’s not the first time Leno has left the show, after he was infamously fired by NBC in 2009 and forced into another program in an earlier time slot — only to triumphantly return the next year after an outcry from NBC affiliates.
This time around, Leno has said, he was asked to make way for new blood.
“I’m not unhappy. This is a great franchise (and) I’m really proud we’ve been able to keep it number one,” Leno told the Los Angeles Times newspaper in an interview posted online this week.
The handover has been amicable, with Leno and Fallon giving joint interviews and the younger comic appearing on “The Tonight Show” penning mock thank-you notes to his mentor and promising to do him proud.
Year after year, Leno has outpaced his rivals David Letterman at CBS and Jimmy Kimmel at ABC “in every key demographic and across age groups” from teenagers to seniors, an NBC spokesman said.
It’s currently riding a five-year ratings high in the critical 18- to 49-year-old age group.
But with 3.8 million viewers, “The Tonight Show” pulls far fewer eyeballs than it did in its pre-Internet, pre-multi-channel cable heyday, when Carson could get a record 45 million people to stay up late in 1969 to witness pop novelty singer Tiny Tim marry Miss Vicki.
Immeasurable is how many watch the show, or clips from it, at more sensible hours the day after broadcast, on streaming services such as Hulu (part-owned by NBC) or the official “The Tonight Show” website.
“I get it,” said Leno in a recent interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS television. “Johnny was 66 when he left… That’s about right… I think, after a while, I’m not going to be that up on the latest Justin Bieber record.”