Last night was Jay Leno’s final appearance as host of The Tonight Show . It was a surprisingly minimalist farewell, with just two scheduled guests, Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks. Naturally, there were plenty of surprises for the #1 rated talk show host including President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and the great Carol Burnett. Despite the controversy surrounding “Conan Gate,” it’s been clear over the past week of farewells that Jay has a lot more friends in the business than enemies. And those friends include his fellow late night hosts.
Jimmy Kimmel, who has had puh-lenty to say about Leno over the years, tweeted this heartfelt tribute before the Tonight Show aired last night, “Issues aside, 20 years at #1 is a remarkable achievement. Congratulations and best wishes to @jayleno on an incredible run.” Way to keep it classy there, Kimmel.
Conan O’Brien, who is at the center of a lot of Leno grudges, made just one jab in his opening monologue. The floppy haired should-have-been-Tonight-Show-host said, “The Olympics start airing tonight on NBC. It’s very cool. That’s right, NBC has the Olympics. It’s a big deal. NBC will finally get to show somebody who is okay with passing the torch.” and then with a very wry smirk, “I allowed myself one, but it was a good one.” Nor was it a particularly mean one. It seems like even Conan is over full-blown Leno hate.
There is still, of course, some bitterness on Conan’s end. However, as he noted in a speech to Dartmouth College in 2011, “It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.” Over the years, I have been happy to see Conan take his own advice and handle the whole thing with manners and good humor, as he did last night in his monologue.
Leno’s somewhat friendly rival David Letterman, who has held the #2 spot consistently behind Leno (and who was meant to be the true Tonight Show successor before Leno), had nothing but kind words.
“Tonight is a big night for change in late-night television... Our friend Jay Leno, 22 years as host of The Tonight Show — 22 years, that’s remarkable, isn’t it? — 22 years and tonight will be his last program... Congratulations to a wonderful run. And I’ll tell you something — if I was Jay Leno and I was retiring, you know what I would do? I would go out and buy myself a car.”
Letterman has faced plenty of his own personal controversy over the years, so he and Leno can perhaps commiserate a little more than they may have every imagined.
As for the rest of Thursday’s late night broadcasts, there were lots of well wishes and admiration for the man who was what Billy Crystal called, “America’s nightlight.” There are still plenty of comedians and industry people out there who aren’t Leno fans, but at least his “rivals” and competitors handled his departure with kindness. Because, well, millions of Americans really love Jay Leno.