For a man who says he doesn't like goodbyes, Jay Leno did his last farewell awfully well.
Exiting The Tonight Show for the second and final time Thursday night after a 22-year run (give or take that stretch in 2009 when he temporarily ceded the show to Conan O'Brien), Leno opened by reminding viewers that everything about the exit was NBC's idea.
"I don't like goodbyes," he said. "NBC does." He also, however, promised this would be the last Tonight goodbye you hear from him: "I don't need to get fired three times. I get the hint."
While fans no doubt understood the bitterness behind those jokes, they were probably also grateful that it did not pervade the rest of the show. Instead, the tone shifted to a more viewer-friendly mix of humorous and sentimental – from Leno's tribute to his staff to taped salutes (phrased as advice) from the likes of Bob Costas, Matt Damon, Kevin Bacon and President Obama.
For much of the humor, you can credit Billy Crystal, who was a guest on Leno's first Tonight show back in 1992 and returned Thursday for the last. He followed Leno's monologue with his own version of a Leno monologue, recapping some of the departing host's better jokes over the years. ("When Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband's willy, who described her as single and him as unattached?")
Crystal's and the show's best bit came later: A version of The Sound of Music's "So Long, Farewell" from the "Shut Your Von Trapp Family Singers." What followed was a set of reworked verses built around Leno's departure and delivered by a string of surprise guests, including Jack Black, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, Carol Burnett (who did her Tarzan yell for him) and Oprah Winfrey ("So, long, farewell, you really raised the bar. If you were me, you'd buy them all a car.")
As for the sentiment, some of that came from Crystal and Leno's sweet stroll down memory lane, and some from Garth Brooks' rendition – at Leno's request – of The Dance. But the most touching moment came, appropriately enough, from Leno himself, who broke down in tears near the end as he thanked his crew for "the greatest 22 years of my life." You don't have to like Leno to understand how hard it must be for him to leave, to at least momentarily empathize, and to wish him well.
And say goodbye.