He said he knew it was time to go, but saying goodbye was still an emotional affair for Jay Leno, who signed off as the "Tonight Show" host for a second time Thursday night.
Choking up as he thanked the audience for being "incredibly loyal," Leno said his "Tonight Show" years were "the greatest 22 years of my life" and proclaimed himself "the luckiest guy in the world."
"The first year of the show, I lost my mom. The second year, I lost my dad,” he continued. “Then my brother died … and the folks here became my family."
Leno called out his staff and crew, employees he made a point to protect when he agreed to end his run as host early, in time for Jimmy Fallon to takeover and capitalize on NBC's Olympics broadcasts. Leno had agreed to jump ship in February, as long as his staff would be paid through next fall.
"I'm proud to say this is a union show," he said, adding how proud he was when one of his staff showed off a new car or told him about their new house.
He added he's "really excited for Jimmy Fallon," and he's proud to have been a part of such a great institution, then, shedding tears, he quoted Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" sign-off from 1992: "I bid you all a very heartfelt good night."
Click on the photo below to see more pics from Leno's final "Tonight Show":
Leno's farewell was followed by a performance from Garth Brooks, who sang "Friends in Low Places," and was preceded by final guest Billy Crystal, and a serenade from an all-star lineup of surprise guests.
The "Shut Your Von Trapp Family Singers" — including Oprah, Jack Black, Carol Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, Chris Paul, and Kim Kardashian (who was greeted with silence from the audience) — sang "So Long, Farewell" from "The Sound of Music," with lyrics tweaked to fit Leno.
From Black: "If Fallon tanks, you'll be back in a year," a reference to Leno's 2009 "retirement" when Conan O'Brien took over as "Tonight Show" host.
Burnett did her trademark Tarzan yell, and Oprah reminded the audience of her own generosity when she sang, "So long, farewell, you really raised the bar/If you were me, you'd buy them all a car."
That's so Oprah.
Another group of celebs participated in a video montage wishing Leno well, and making suggestions for how he should follow up his "Tonight Show" gig. Steve Carell, Kevin Bacon, Bob Costas, Bill Maher, Matt Damon, Kevin Hart, Mark Wahlberg, Larry the Cable Guy, and Fallon were among those in the clip, along with President Barack Obama (who told Leno he's making him the ambassador to Antarctica because of all the jokes he's made about the POTUS), Miley Cyrus (who dented one of Leno's classic cars with her car door), Dana Carvey (who did a Leno impersonation), Charlie Sheen (who advised Leno to buy NBC and fire everyone), Tyler Perry (who put Leno in Madea gear), and Martha Stewart, who told Leno to call her if he ever gets a "hall pass" from wife Mavis.
Run, Jay, run.
Crystal, who poked fun at pal Leno by singing a parody of Bette Midler's farewell serenade to Johnny Carson when he was Leno's first guest in 1992, began his finale guest stint by coming out on stage with a moving company and putting tags on everything. He then honored his friend by saying he "made us feel a little better at bedtime," and recalling how, when he was Leno's first guest, Leno had asked him to be his final guest someday, too. "Promise made, promise kept," Crystal said.
Trivia: Crystal was also Leno's guest on his penultimate 2009 show, before O'Brien became the "Tonight Show" host.
Leno began the final episode like any other, with a monologue, getting in his own NBC jab. "I don't like goodbyes. NBC does," he said, adding, "I don't need to get fired three times. I get the hint."
He talked about how things have changed since he became "Tonight Show" host 22 years ago, touching on everything from porn ("Guys actually had to go to the newsstand for porn") and O.J. Simpson ("Saddest part of all, O.J. never found the real killers") to David Letterman ("People always want to know whether Letterman and I actually didn't like each other. It's not true. We like each other. We've had a long relationship. We both realized nobody wants to turn on late-night TV and see millionaires fighting. That's what Republican primaries are for") and one of his most famous guests, Hugh Grant.
Grant's appearance on the show in July 1995, after infamously being arrested for lewd conduct with hooker Divine Brown in late June of that year, marked a major turning point for Leno as a late-night host. "What the hell were you thinking?" Leno asked. Grant made no excuses, admitted he'd done a bad thing, and scored a PR success. Leno, too, was a big winner: It was the first time his "Tonight Show" beat rival Letterman's CBS late-night show in the ratings.
And despite his ouster as "Tonight Show" host, Leno is going out on top of the late-night ratings. He's on a 67-week winning streak in total viewers versus Letterman's "Late Show." And last week, Leno's final full week as "Tonight Show" host, drew a bigger audience than the show had since 2010, when Leno returned to the "Tonight Show" after O'Brien's brief run.
(By the way, wondering what Coco had to say about Leno's latest departure from the "Tonight Show"? He addressed it in his own monologue Thursday night: "The Olympics start airing tonight on NBC. That's right — NBC has the Olympics. It's a big deal. NBC will finally get to show somebody who's OK with passing the torch.")
Finally, after Brooks, who called Leno "the dearest friend to entertainment," sang one of Leno's favorite songs, "The Dance," and "Friends in Low Places," the host hugged him and said to the camera, "Watch Jimmy Fallon! I'm coming home, honey!"
President Obama, who is the first sitting president to appear as a "Tonight Show" guest and who went on to appear with Leno a total of six times, paid his respects in the video, and via a statement from White House press secretary Jay Carney.
"[Obama] is a fan and he has enjoyed his times on the set with Jay Leno," Carney said in his daily press conference. "And it's just the end of an era, I think, for a lot of folks who have watched him on the 'Tonight Show' over all these years. So the President wishes him well."
First Lady Michelle Obama, who made four guest appearances on the "Tonight Show," tweeted her own good luck missive:
In addition to the Obamas and the many famous types who participated in the Leno finale, still more celebs tweeted their good wishes to the host throughout the day, including a fellow late-night host and sometimes Leno foe:
Issues aside, 20 years at #1 is a remarkable achievement. Congratulations and best wishes to @jayleno on an incredible run— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) February 6, 2014
More famous well-wishers who sent tweets to Leno:
Thanks @jayleno for being supportive of me and my tunes from day one!! Has always been a pleasure to be on your Tonight.— josh groban (@joshgroban) February 7, 2014
@jayleno I Will miss you sir. Loved our interviews.— Shannen Doherty (@DohertyShannen) February 6, 2014
Ive always loved Sandra Bullock but she is the sweetest thing & such a beautiful person! She is right. @jayleno is so great!Gonna miss him.— Kelly Clarkson (@kelly_clarkson) February 6, 2014
Fare thee well Jay Leno U are going out on top...TOP we will miss you on the Tonight Show, whoever thought being number 1 wasnt good enough— Whoopi Goldberg (@WhoopiGoldberg) February 6, 2014
Just wanna say thank you for always being the sweetest and having me on your show these past 4 years! Great times! Big fan ❤️❤️❤️ @jayleno— Nicole Polizzi (@snooki) February 7, 2014
Jimmy Fallon takes over as "Tonight Show" host — and makes New York City its home base for the first time since Carson hosted it from the east coast in 1972 — on Feb. 17.
But first, some viewer reaction to Leno's (second) "Tonight Show" farewell:
Jay Lenos goodbye speech was really moving. It'll be weird not seeing him on the Tonight Show anymore.— Chris Morgan (@HollywoodMoegan) February 7, 2014
Growing up @jayleno was my generations Tonight Show host. He made any night, good or bad, end in a laugh for me. Thanks, Jay.— Matt Strickert (@mstrickert89) February 7, 2014
We cannot strongly enough second @goodyk’s tweet about the Martha Stewart segment of that celebrity tribute video to Leno:
Thought nothing could put me off bacon, till I saw Martha Stewart and her homemade bacini. #Leno— Bill Goodykoontz (@goodyk) February 7, 2014
Memorable #JayLeno last Tonight Show. True original, emotional farewell showed how much he loved job. Tributes by Billy Crystal,Garth Brooks— Aaron Dorksen (@adorksenTDR) February 7, 2014
And from former NBC president Warren Littlefield:
Just got home from Burbank, not a drug induced flashback Thank you Jay Leno for 22 great years & an outstanding final hour with love warren— warren littlefield (@TopOfTheRock_WL) February 7, 2014
On the flip side, @Adam_Cozens tweeted:
Im honoring the last episode of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno the best way I know how: by watching Conan.— Adam Cozens (@Adam_Cozens) February 7, 2014