Billy Crystal is a guest on Jay Leno's final episode of "The Tonight Show." | Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Updated: February 6, 2014 9:25PM
BURBANK, Calif. — Jay Leno has said goodbye to “The Tonight Show” before, but not like this. The comedian became tearful and choked up Thursday as he concluded what he called the “greatest 22 years of my life.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. This is tricky,” said an emotional Leno, stepping down for the second and presumably last time as host of TV’s venerable late-night program. Jimmy Fallon takes over “Tonight” in New York on Feb. 17.
Leno shared that he’d lost his mother the first year he became “Tonight” host, his dad the second and then his brother.
“And after that I was pretty much out of family. And the folks here became my family,” he said of the crew and staff of “Tonight.”
It was a tender finish to a farewell show that was mostly aiming for laughs, with traditional monologue jokes, clips from old shows and a wild assortment of celebrities helping to usher Leno out the door.
Leno first departure came in 2009, when he was briefly replaced by Conan O’Brien but reclaimed the show after its ratings sank. During that switch, he was moving to a prime-time show on NBC; this time he’s out the door, and has said he’ll focus on comedy clubs and his beloved car collection.
The typically self-contained comic betrayed a bit of nervousness Thursday, stumbling over a few lines in his monologue.
He didn’t trip over his opening line, though — a final dig at his employer.
“You’re very kind,” he told the audience. “I don’t like goodbyes. NBC does.”
Leno brought his show full circle with Billy Crystal, who was his first guest in May 1992 and his last guest Thursday. Crystal played ringmaster at one point, calling on Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian, Carol Burnett and others for a musical tribute to Jay with a “Sound of Music” song parody.
“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye,” sang Jack Black. “If Fallon tanks you’ll be back here next year,”
In a videotaped segment, celebrities offered career advice to Leno. President Barack Obama, like other politicians a favorite target of Leno’s, struck back in his clip.
“Jay, you’ve made a whole lot of jokes about me over the years, but don’t worry, I’m not upset,” Obama said, then said he was making Leno the U.S. ambassador to Antarctica. “Hope you have a warm coat, man.”
Crystal sang Leno’s praises during the show, saying the late-night host made America feel a little better at bedtime and invoking his predecessor, Johnny Carson. Leno’s “Tonight” tenure was second in length only to Carson’s 30 years.
“You were handed the baton by one of the all-time greats. But once it was in your grasp, you ran the race,” Crystal said. He and Leno, longtime friends, reminisced about the old days, with Leno recalling how Crystal and other comedians visiting his town, Boston, stayed in Leno’s apartment.
“You’re calling it an apartment. I’m calling it a bomb site,” Crystal joked.
Garth Brooks performed his touching song “The Dance” before Leno’s farewell remarks. “Now that I brought the room down,” Leno joked, he asked Brooks to lighten it up.
Another Brooks’ song, “Friends in Low Places,” closed out the show.