“Thank you everybody! Watch Jimmy Fallon! Thanks folks, see ya later. I’m coming home, honey!”
— Jay Leno’s last words on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, NBC, Feb. 6, 2014
But before that. Just before that, came this heartfelt goodbye from Leno behind the desk, as he teared up from the very start of trying to put together his final thoughts and thanks for hosting his dream job for most of the past 22 years. “This is tricky,” Leno said, referring to fighting back his emotions. “This has been the greatest 22 years of my life.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. I got to meet presidents, astronauts, movie stars. It’s just been incredible. I got to work with lighting people who made me look better than I really am, I got to work with audio people who made me sound better than I really do, and I got to work with producers and writers — and just all kinds of talented people who make me look a lot smarter than I really am. I’ll tell you something. The first year of this show, I lost my mom. The second year, I lost my dad. And my brother died. After that, I was pretty much out of family. And 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, you might remember — we had the 64 children that were born among all our staffers that married. That was a great moment. And when people say to me, ‘Hey, why didn’t you go to ABC? Why didn’t you go to FOX? Why didn’t you go…I didn’t know anybody over there. These are the only people I’ve ever known. I’m also proud to say this is a union show. And I’ve never worked (applause) I’ve never worked with a more professional group of people in my life. They get paid good money. And they do a good job. And when the guys and women on this show would show me the new car they bought or the house up the street here in Burbank that one of the guys got, I felt I played as big a role in their success as they played in mine. And that was just a great feeling.
“And I’m really excited for Jimmy Fallon. You know, it’s fun to kind of be the old guy and sit back here and see where the next generation takes this great institution. And it really is. It’s been a great institution for 60 years. I’m so glad I got to be a part of it. But it really is time to go. Hand it off to the next guy. It really is. And in closing, I want to quote Johnny Carson, who was the greatest guy to ever do this job. And he said, ‘I bid you all a heartfelt goodnight.'”
Leno then quipped that he’d “brought the room down,” and asked musical guest Garth Brooks to “liven the mood,” to which he played his hit, “Friends in Low Places.”
Roll the clip. The credits list all of Leno’s final Tonight Show staffers, and then a few last words from Leno: “Thank you everybody! Watch Jimmy Fallon! Thanks folks, see ya later. I’m coming home, honey!”
If you want to read between the lines here, there’s enough to suggest that Leno really does know he’s not coming back to the Tonight Show (for one thing, the show is leaving Burbank to move back to New York City), and that there’s more than a slight chance he’ll resurface with something similar yet different at CNN, where he does know the guy there: Jeff Zucker. But that’s for another day, and another chapter in late-night television.