Jay Leno to take his final bow on ‘Tonight Show’

BY Chelsea Coatney  February 6, 2014 at 4:47 PM EST
Photo by Pete Souza

Jay Leno leaves the Tonight Show Thursday night. Photo by Pete Souza.

NBC and loyal viewers alike will say goodbye to a comedy legend Thursday night.

Jay Leno, host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” from 1992 to 2014 (with a brief break in 2009), will host his final show Thursday night. The celebrated comedian is handing over the reins to Jimmy Fallon, who has been hosting NBC’s “Late Night” since 2009.

NBC hopes the transition will go more smoothly than the first time the network attempted to move Jay Leno out of the 11:30 p.m. time slot. Conan O’Brien succeeded Leno in 2009, but Leno eventually returned to the “Tonight Show” after ratings dipped.

Leno and Fallon have kept any rumors of a new late night “feud” at bay, speaking graciously about each other to the press. Leno told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn’t unhappy about leaving, but did admit that he probably would have stayed on as host of “The Tonight Show” longer if Fallon had not been “in the wings.” Fallon told New York Magazine that Leno has given him his blessing, and that he has already sought out advice from the man who sat behind the “Tonight Show” desk for over two decades.

Both Leno’s “Tonight Show” and Fallon’s “Late Night” are going out on top, with Leno seeing his best overnight ratings since Conan O’Brien’s tenure, and Fallon experiencing a 17% ratings increase to date. Leno has been winning the late night ratings battle each night, trumping the “Late Show with David Letterman” on CBS and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on ABC. NBC hopes Fallon can keep up the winning streak, attract younger viewers and keep rising star Kimmel at bay.

Leno’s finale airs at 11:30 p.m. Thursday with guests Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks.

“The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” premieres on Feb. 17. Fallon’s “Late Night” successor, Seth Meyers — who ended his “Saturday Night Live” career last week — takes over on Feb. 24.