BURBANK, Calif. – Late night TV host Jay Leno wrapped up 17 years as "Tonight" host Friday with jabs at favorite targets, including politicians and his own network, and with an unusual touch of sentiment.
"Now comes the hard part," Leno said as the NBC show drew to a close.
After reminiscing briefly about his time as host, Leno said he had an answer to those who asked him about his "Tonight" legacy.
He invited the audience to "take a look" at the children born to show staffers during his tenure — all 68 of them, babies to teenagers, who filled the studio stage.
"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."'
It was a self-effacing, homespun ending that suited Leno, who's often said he wants to appeal to the American mainstream and doesn't fret about his appeal to critics or other arbiters of what's cool.
But 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.
The late Carson got a tip of the hat Friday, although 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 Friday 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.
He was offered the chance to buy his dressing-room robe for $40, he quipped, and then gave NBC a sharp dig over its slumping prime-time ratings.
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 football legend O.J. Simpson, another monologue favorite since his sensational 1994 trial for the murder of his wife and her friend. 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 comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the routine's inspiration, with old "Tonight" clips.
A new segment was introduced called "White Trash Theater," which consisted of a clip of a woman trying to drive a man away from her porch by hitting him with a beer bottle and a trash-can lid.
Other than singer James Taylor, who performed "Sweet Baby James," celebrities were largely 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.
Leno made his own history Friday, as the second longest-running "Tonight" host.