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Published: Saturday, 5/30/2009

After 17 years, Leno hands 'Tonight' over to Conan


BURBANK, Calif. It was a homespun farewell for Jay Leno's last show at "Tonight."

Celebrities were largely absent and the self-effacing comedian said he wanted to be remembered for the children born to his staffers during his 17-year tenure as the show's second-longest running host.

He even posed with all 68 of them, from babies to teenagers.

"That's what I'd like my legacy to be," Leno said, his voice thickened by emotion. "When these kids grow up and they go, 'Hey, mom and dad, where did you guys meet?', they're going to say they met on the stage of 'The Tonight Show.'"

The show also included jabs at favorite targets, including politicians and his own network. He noted proudly that he took over the top-rated late-night show from Johnny Carson and was passing it on with the same No. 1 ranking to Conan O'Brien, who begins as host Monday.

"Which means I get my security deposit back," quipped Leno.

Leno received a chilly reception when he beat out Carson favorite David Letterman for the "Tonight" job in 1992.

Carson, who was host for a record 30 years, taught him that no matter what happens in the world the host has to have a nightly monologue, "because that's your job," Leno said.

Giving O'Brien a pre-debut boost, Leno welcomed him as his final guest.

"You were the perfect choice. You've been an absolute gentlemen in private and in the press," Leno told O'Brien, lauding him for his "sharp" material.

"Conan rocks," a studio audience member shouted. "I agree, Conan rocks," Leno replied.

A clip was shown from 1993, when the 30-year-old O'Brien, a TV newcomer, appeared on "Tonight" hours after being signed to host "Late Night."

Leno, his hair dark then and gray now, was ushered on stage Friday with a Jimi Hendrix-flavored version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by bandleader Kevin Eubanks.

"Welcome to the exciting season finale of 'The Tonight Show,'" said Leno, greeted by a standing ovation. "I want to thank all the people who made it possible: Michael Jackson, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton."

After noting that former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush were participating in a joint speaking engagement in Canada, Leno remarked wistfully: "I wish I had one more day."

He didn't refrain from mocking his network although he's moving to NBC's prime-time schedule this fall.

His new show represents a gamble, Leno said: "I'm betting NBC will be around in three months. That's not a given."

Leno also fit in a last shot at O.J. Simpson, another monologue favorite. In cleaning out his office, the comedian said, "I found O.J.'s knife. I had it the whole time."

He did his now-customary one-liners about the sour economy, and then paid tribute to the late Rodney Dangerfield, the routine's inspiration, with old "Tonight" clips.

Other than James Taylor, who performed "Sweet Baby James," celebrities were absent from the final show, which favored by-the-people comedy instead.

There was a lengthy "Best of Jaywalking" segment, highlights of Leno asking people on the street questions about history and other topics. A sample: A woman correctly said the first man to land on the moon was Armstrong, but when asked his first name offered "Louie," not Neil.

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