May 31, 2009 / 11:09 PM / 10 years ago

Leno's "Tonight Show" farewell sweet but not sappy

"The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" host Jay Leno (R) interviews Conan O'Brien, during Leno's final show in Burbank, California, May 29, 2009. REUTERS/Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/Handout

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Americans are used to change — we get a brand-new administration in Washington, D.C., every four years or so. But it happens a lot less often on NBC’s venerable, 55-year-old “Tonight Show,” and the last time there was a handover of power, let’s just say it didn’t go as smoothly as everyone might have liked.

Network brass weren’t going to let that happen this time. Jay Leno’s final “Tonight Show” week was a carefully orchestrated blend of favorite guests and classic bits. All he had to do on the final show was shake hands with his successor, Conan O’Brien, tie up a few knots, and go home. (At least until September, when Jay takes over the 10 p.m. slot at the Peacock.)

Fortunately, Friday night’s finale took a gentle left turn. Sure, there was the monologue, complete with one-liners and jokes like, “When I started on this show, my hair was black and the president was white.” Affable, cheery and just-this-side-of-edgy, Leno was in his usual form.

But sometime during his interview with O’Brien, there was a subtle shift. The audience greeted Leno with shouts of “Don’t go!” — and they let O’Brien leave with shouts of “Conan rocks!”

Mission accomplished. Yet Leno still had a few surprises. Turns out he’d been shaping his show all along into a hometown homage: He, O’Brien and musical guest James Taylor hail from Boston — and Taylor sang a song that referenced not New York, not Los Angeles, not even Burbank — but Beantown.

But Leno wasn’t done yet — he noted to the audience that he wanted his legacy from the show to be not bits like “Jaywalking,” but the children born to staff members who met while working on “Tonight.” The curtain raised and all 68 of those offspring waved from center stage while Leno tickled a wandering tot.

Leno’s farewell was no Bette Midler serenade — and it didn’t have to be. He’s never been an overly sentimental type. Instead, his adieus were small, a series of surprising, sweet, saccharine-free moments. That they came from a guy who few believed could walk in the shoes of the great Carson, who spent the past 17 years joking and hosting with talent, enthusiasm, savvy and even joy, proves the naysayers were wrong all along. He was always the right man for the job.

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