BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — Jay Leno said farewell to “The Tonight Show” once before, but that turned out to be just a rehearsal.
On Thursday, Leno is stepping down for the second and presumably last time, making way for successor Jimmy Fallon in New York. When Leno gave up the venerable show to short-lived host Conan O’Brien in 2009, he did a prime-time NBC comedy series before reclaiming “Tonight” in 2010.
This time, Leno’s out the door.
“When we left in ’09 we were going to the 10 o’clock show, so there wasn’t the same sort of finality to it,” said “Tonight” executive producer Debbie Vickers as the program counted down toward the last taping in its longtime studio.
On Thursday afternoon, the setting outside the studio in Burbank, Calif.’s so-called Media District was more fitting of a funeral than a bon voyage party. As rain drizzled off and on, cars carrying Leno’s final audience members filed past the studio gates.
The fenced off area where “Tonight Show” audiences had typically lined up hours early, remained empty throughout the day. Next to the soundstage where the show is taped, a giant white tent had been erected, presumably the setting for Leno’s send-off party. Outside the tent were rows of white flowers, as well as a few of Leno’s vintage cars.
“It’s going to be difficult to not come in and do a show every day for our audience who has been so great to Jay,” lamented Vickers, the executive producer. “And also hard for this group of people (the staff) who have all been together for 22 years,” said Vickers, who worked on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” before taking the top job with Leno.
Leno, 63, said he plans to continue playing comedy clubs, indulging his passion for cars and doing such TV work as comes his way — other than hosting on late-night.
“It’s been a wonderful job. This is the right time to leave,” he said last week, and make way for the next generation.
Fallon, 39, starts his “Tonight” Feb. 17, with NBC hoping he rides the promotional wave of its Winter Olympics coverage the next two weeks.
Billy Crystal was set to help close out Leno’s run, the second-longest for a “Tonight” host next to Carson’s 30 years. The actor-comedian was Leno’s first guest in 1992, and Leno told him he wanted him to be his final one.
Garth Brooks will appear as well, along with surprises being kept under wraps. The 2009 farewell ended with Leno filling the stage with the many children born to the longtime staffers of “Tonight,” an indication of the pride Leno takes in being a loyal boss.
How can he top that?
“In the last segment, Jay will say goodbye to our viewers,” Vickers said. “He has some closing thoughts he’s putting together.”
During his 2009 finale, Leno showed some of his favorite comedy bits and made cracks about favorite subjects, including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and NBC, the network that shuffled him around. James Taylor, the only featured celebrity, performed “Sweet Baby James.”
Leno’s late-night competitors aren’t stepping aside for his final bow.
ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, who was harshly critical of Leno when O’Brian lost “Tonight,” has the A-list cast of the new film “The Monuments Men,” including George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray.
On CBS, David Letterman’s “Late Show” will continue its musical tributes to the upcoming 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on CBS’ “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Sean Lennon, son of the late John Lennon, will perform a Beatles tune with The Flaming Lips.
AP Entertainment Reporter Derrik J. Lang contributed to this report.