Billy Crystal talks to host Jay Leno during the final...

Billy Crystal talks to host Jay Leno during the final taping of NBC's “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," in Burbank, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014. Leno brings his 22-year career as the show host to an end Thursday in a special one-hour farewell broadcast. Credit: AP / Matt Sayles

Oh sure, Jay Leno's final "Tonight Show" was good -- funny, brisk, lively. Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks were excellent as guests, for they clearly wanted to be there and made the best of an a opportunity that yielded little in terms of professional accomplishment but everything in terms of a personal one, which is rare in show business.

But Leno saved his best for last -- specifically the last eight minutes of this last show when he choked up, pulled the full frame of his body up to his chin in a vain effort to control his emotions -- fleetingly evoking a human-sized Cabbage Patch doll -- and then let the tears fall.

It was a moment, or several of them, that we've never seen of Leno, as though a curtain came up to reveal the real man. Gratifyingly, it was the real man we have always suspected Leno to be.

He thanked his viewers -- didn't call them "fans" -- then he moved on to his family. His mother died early in his run, then his father, and a year after that, his brother, Patrick. "I was pretty much without family," he said, and then -- referring to 200-or-so people who have helped him run this machine called "The Tonight Show" for the past 22 years said, "and the folks here became my family."

For good measure, he added proudly that "Tonight Show" was always a "union shop .?.?." (That may well have been a veiled rebuke to the Writer's Guild, which slammed him years ago for writing his monologues during one of the writers' strike, or for something like that. But so what? It was his last show. Jay got in the last word.)

What was so terrific about these last few seconds was the simple fact that Leno -- finally stripped down bare to the emotional studs so to speak, with nothing separating the real person from the millions who have supported him for decades -- did not revert to form and did not hide. He spoke from a heart we've only rarely seen glimpses of over these years, even wrung raw emotion from a heart we knew was there, but hardly ever saw.

And what we saw, in the end, was something -- someone -- both generous and fundamentally decent. The real Jay Leno, ladies and gentlemen.

It was the perfect way to end because it confirmed what everyone -- certainly his supporters if not his detractors -- have suspected all along. Here it is again.

Top Stories