Jay Leno, who will leave the “Tonight” show on Thursday after 22 years, with Jimmy Fallon, who will take over his desk. Paul Drinkwater/NBC

When Jack Paar left the “Tonight” show in 1962, he passed through a set of curtains and the camera zoomed in on a card that read: “No More to Come.” Three decades later, Johnny Carson had Bette Midler serenade him on his penultimate show, then sat and spoke directly to his fans in his emotional finale, watched by 42 million viewers.

But as Jay Leno, who is 63, exits the “Tonight” stage for the last time Thursday night, making way for the 39-year-old Jimmy Fallon to step in, the occasion has been marked by a notably less sentimental celebration of his tenure.

Any changeover behind the desk of the 60-year-old “Tonight” show represents a cultural pivot point. Mr. Leno’s departure after 22 years, almost all of them at the top of the ratings, is a generational shift that includes a geographic shift as well: a host young enough to be Mr. Leno’s son is his successor, and “Tonight,” the pioneer of late-night television, is returning to its roots, moving from Los Angeles back to New York.

Mr. Leno at his desk in 1992. His departure points to a generational shift at NBC, and for late-night television. Chris Haston/NBC

Despite the diminished state of late-night television, and technology that has altered viewing habits, Mr. Leno’s show remains one of the signature franchises of broadcasting and still carries unusual resonance.

“Even with 300 channels and 48 other competitors in late-night, the ‘Tonight’ show is still a center of show business,” said Rick Ludwin, who supervised NBC’s late-night lineup from the Carson era through 2011. “It’s the top of the line.”

And it is back at Rockefeller Center, Mr. Fallon’s current base, where he will introduce his version of “Tonight” on Feb. 17. He will be teamed up with Seth Meyers of “Saturday Night Live,” who is sliding into the “Late Night” chair that Mr. Fallon is vacating. But the dominoes all start with Mr. Leno’s departure.

On Thursday night, Mr. Leno will welcome back Billy Crystal, who was his first guest in 1992, along with a favorite music artist, Garth Brooks. Over the last few weeks, the show has featured a roster of favorite guests and a roundup of “best” moments — best headlines, best guest interviews and others.


The more subdued send-off Mr. Leno is getting is partly of his own doing. Always a man who disdained emotional displays, he has tamped down the attention surrounding this departure. He has been careful to avoid any hint of the drama that surrounded his brief hiatus in 2009 and 2010, when he and Conan O’Brien engaged in a rapid-fire — and acrimonious — sequence of entrances and exits.

What has mattered to Mr. Leno is winning. Nothing mattered more to him than succeeding Johnny Carson on “Tonight.” When he did, he was determined to maintain the show’s status as the premier address in an overcrowded late-night neighborhood. His ability to do so, by dominating the late-night ratings, may be his signature legacy.

Mr. Leno was never defined by breaking new ground in television comedy, or filling the Internet with highlight clips. Nor did he rack up accolades from critics or fellow comedians.

“He said it many times over,” said Mr. Ludwin, who left NBC after a falling out with Mr. Leno. “He is in the business of getting people to show up. Jay is a comic. He wants to count the house.”

For much of his run, Mr. Leno was criticized for playing to the mainstream and selling out his early comic brilliance. After making a name for himself with sharp appearances as a guest on David Letterman’s “Late Night” show in the 1980s, he maneuvered his way past Mr. Letterman into the chair behind the “Tonight” desk.

Jerry Seinfeld, close to both hosts, never understood the enmity directed at Mr. Leno. “Those two guys both wanted that show and one guy got it,” Mr. Seinfeld said, noting that Mr. Letterman got a show of his own. “If you have a talk show on a major network at 11:30 at night, who cares what it’s called?”

Mr. Leno cared. He fought tenaciously to secure the “Tonight” show, then battled just as fiercely to preserve his hold on it after nervous NBC executives pondered whether to replace him with Mr. Letterman. Seeking every advantage, Mr. Leno sneaked into a closet to eavesdrop on a meeting of top network executives.

Mr. Leno recounted that story last week on the show “Access Hollywood.” As he did, he flashed the same surge of pure satisfaction at his resourcefulness that he displayed in 1993 when he first revealed the episode. Far from being dismayed by charges of sneakiness or unscrupulousness, Mr. Leno has always been deeply proud of that moment — because he took charge of his own fate.

Mr. Leno with David Letterman, a late-night rival who was once seen as a candidate for the “Tonight Show” host. NBC

Mr. Leno also drew fire when he replaced Mr. O’Brien on “Tonight” in early 2010, with critics suggesting he had again maneuvered around a rival to obtain the job he wanted.

To Mr. Leno, however, defying his opponents, and pulling himself up off the floor, was a crucial talent. “I can get hit a lot,” he said then. “I can get hit all day long.”

That was one of several qualities that underscored Mr. Leno’s single-mindedness. His mantra about his simple approach was: “Write joke, tell joke, get check.” He once asked NBC if they could hire a separate writing staff for the eight weeks the show was in repeats, with the regular writers on vacation, so he could be on the air every week of the year.

He also made clear that, if given the chance, he would stay on the “Tonight” stage until he keeled over. Mr. Letterman joked in an interview Mr. Seinfeld posted this week that Mr. Leno would most likely “entertain at his own funeral.”

That determination to stay at it has helped feed the lingering suspicion that Mr. Leno remained somewhat perturbed with NBC’s latest decision to replace him. He sprinkled recent monologues with jokes suggesting that NBC and Mr. Fallon had been all too eager to move him out.

“He’s not here to talk; he’s helping me pack!” Mr. Leno quipped about Mr. Fallon.


In a pointed shot at his network bosses last year, Mr. Leno told a joke about a man with a knife in his back for three years: “He must’ve worked at NBC, too.”

Mr. Leno frequently said that his overarching goal was to leave with “Tonight” still on top. Voluntarily or not, that is what he is doing. His ratings in his final nights have ascended to levels not seen in late night in four years — back to the week when he returned to “Tonight” after Mr. O’Brien’s stormy exit.

Nobody expects Mr. Leno to approach the level of Mr. Carson’s final bow: Mr. Leno’s first farewell, in May 2009, drew 11.9 million.

Mr. Leno has not announced his future plans beyond promising to continue his touring standup comedy act. But Mr. Ludwin predicted flatly that some other television outlet will be pursuing Mr. Leno shortly. (His contract with NBC does not end officially until September.) One rumor has him going to CNN.

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Mr. Seinfeld said he could not see Mr. Leno in any assignment like the one he is leaving. “If Jay does something, it will be completely different,” Mr. Seinfeld said.

But in show business, winners get calls. Lorne Michaels, the creator and still the head of “Saturday Night Live,” who will inherit the top production job on Mr. Fallon’s “Tonight” show, has a favorite saying about the wisdom of writing off the outgoing “Tonight” host:

“Fortunes have been lost underestimating Jay Leno.”



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