"I wouldn't say sad. There's nothing to be sad about. He's had a tremendous career there," Letterman said, graciously.
Others have chimed in. "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher, a regular "Tonight" guest, and Seth MacFarlane ("Family Guy," ''Ted,") serenaded Leno last week to the tune of "Thanks for the Memories," the same one Bette Midler used to sweetly honor Carson. This parody was edgier.
"You've been retired and twice been fired for being No. 1. How stupid they are," the pair sang, zinging NBC as a surprised, bemused Leno watched.
Maher was expansive when asked to comment on Leno.
"As a performer trying to make it in show business, and as a human being, you cannot do better than ask, 'What would Jay do?'" Maher said in an email Saturday.
Leno's final show will feature Billy Crystal, his first "Tonight" guest, and Garth Brooks. Leno's legacy — a word that makes him squirm — might include expanding the show's opening monologue; a memorable mea culpa from Hugh Grant after he was arrested in 1995 with a prostitute; the first interview with a sitting president, Barack Obama, in 2009; and the "Jaywalking" fixture, which trips up people with simple questions.
Leno's favorite Q&A is that those queried about how Mount Rushmore was formed often reply, "erosion." His head-shaking reaction: "The wind and rain not only picked four presidents, it picked four of our greatest presidents!"
Was he the most daring, most innovative, most surprising force in late-night? His critics and even clear-eyed admirers said no, and Leno doesn't argue with them — but that's not what counts, he adds: "Whether you like the host or not, you cannot say it's not been a success. A football team might not have the most sophisticated players but can win the Super Bowl."
Leno cannot be called unsophisticated but he is determinedly un-show biz. He makes note of his modest New England upbringing, the high school friends he remains close to, his three-decade marriage to wife, Mavis, and the many "Tonight" staffers who remained loyal throughout his tenure.
Hollywood has been a place to get to tell jokes to a big audience, reap millions of dollars to be carefully saved and keep a safe distance from the circus.
"When this is over, I don't get to my table at (posh restaurant) Morton's and" — here, he feigns dismay as he mimics a maître d' — 'Sorry, Mr. Leno, this is Mr. Fallon's table.'"
Instead, the day after Leno steps off the "Tonight" stage, the one designed for him, he will travel to Florida for a handful of club dates, his wife at his side. And, he said, he'll be content with that.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report. Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter@lynnelber.
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