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Goodbye, Jay -- See you on the road

By Rich Heldenfels Published: February 7, 2014

Last night brought Jay Leno's most recent farewell from "The Tonight Show" and, it would seem, his last one. He may come back as a guest -- Jimmy Fallon certainly left the door open for that -- but Jay's 20-plus-year run as host is over. Even if Fallon tanks miserably in the ratings, can you see NBC admitting yet again that it erred in removing Leno -- or would Leno even want to be NBC's default position again? I don't think he is done with TV, but for a while you may be more likely to find him on the standup trail he has walked for so long.

And the last show, including the farewell clip above, was a hint of why it's time to go. I like Leno, having witnessed his graciousness more than once and having seen him do standup in person more than once. And the monologue was all right -- imagine, Hugh Grant in the news again.

But prepared bits in the farewell telecast contained too many clunky, obvious jokes (the what's-next-for-Jay bit was especially weak). Things improved when Billy Crystal arrived, and reminded us of how long Leno has been working -- and that he is a good guy, even in his poorer days hosting other comics coming to Boston.

Then, the "So Long, Farewell," number was a nice idea (and among the show's several jabs at NBC for dropping Jay) but dragged out by the need to introduce every celebrity who participated -- as if there were viewers who would not be sure which Kardashian was on hand, or who Sheryl Crow is. Clump clump clump.

Leno recovered in his comments at the end of the show, and the way he focused on the people around him (not to mention taking pride in being a union show). It was touching, and seemingly genuine -- but you could also see how uncomfortable it made Leno to be so emotional.

So, instead of ending on that note -- which Carson, for one, was willing to do -- Leno tried to go upbeat with Brooks performing "Friends in Low Places." An apt song, to be sure, especially considering the way the culturati has long viewed Leno as lowly placed in comparison to other late-night hosts. But the performance limped along, especially in its barely audible sing-along section.

If Leno wanted to end with a song, better to move Brooks's performance of "The Dance" to the closing spot. Only that would have been a more somber ending, and Leno to his last moments wanted to leave the audience satisfied and happy, forgetting what was really going on.

When he played the Akron Civic back in 2003, he was still talking about his parents in the present tense even though (as he said on the farewell "Tonight")  they had passed away years earlier. The stories were funnier without the pain of real life inserted. On Thursday night, he didn't want us to hurt because he was going -- he wanted us to smile and laugh because he had been here.

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