By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jay Leno bid farewell to "The Tonight Show" on Friday, ending his 17-year run as host with a finale that stayed true to the style that made him the top-rated performer on U.S. late-night television.
The main difference was a long ovation that Leno struggled to quiet as he took the stage for an opening monologue that poked fun, as usual, at politicians, celebrities and current events.
He thanked the likes of pop star Michael Jackson and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, whose affair with Bill Clinton led to the former U.S. president's impeachment, for giving him material over the years. He also took a final jab at his network, NBC, which is mired at the bottom of the ratings among the four major U.S. broadcasters.
Leno takes his act to 10 p.m. on NBC this autumn, where he will mount a program expected to be similar to the "Tonight Show" but attract a wider audience than the roughly 5 million viewers, on average, who tune in nightly to the broadcast.
"I'm going to be going to a secluded spot where no one can find me -- NBC prime time," Leno said. "It's a gamble. I'm betting NBC will still be around in three months, but that's not a given."
He joked that he had finally cleaned out his office and "found O.J.'s knife. I had it the whole time," referring to former football star O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted on charges he murdered his wife in the mid-1990s.
Leno even introduced a new segment, "White Trash Theater," which showed a video clip of a woman throwing a trash can at a man to get him off her porch.
Throughout the opening, Leno betrayed no special sentiment -- no tears or even a choked-up voice. Indeed, he proved the consummate comedian by putting on a show that made people laugh. Guests included Conan O'Brien, who will take over as host of the "Tonight Show" on Monday, and singer James Taylor.
Leno played a video clip of a young and clearly uncomfortable O'Brien when he first appeared on the "Tonight Show" in 1993, and Taylor sang his classic "Sweet Baby James," which Leno said he remembered hearing when, as a young comedian, he drove across country to move to Los Angeles.
The host ended with a tribute to the "Tonight Show" staff, many of whom stayed with the program throughout his 17 years and even married their co-workers. The show's many couples had 68 children between them, and Leno said his legacy would be that the show had spawned such a close-knit group of friends.
He said the show's former host, late-night television legend Johnny Carson, had taught him one key thing: to keep people laughing through good times and bad.
Leno, 59, took the reins of the venerable program in May 1992 from Carson.
After initially struggling in the ratings against late-night counterpart David Letterman, who had been his rival for the "Tonight Show" job, Leno grabbed the lead in viewership about 13 years ago and become a mainstay of American TV.
He has taken jabs at four presidents, from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, who in March became the first sitting U.S. chief executive to appear on a late-night talk show. He made audiences laugh through an era that included natural disasters, wars and the September 11 attacks.
Notable moments included Arnold Schwarzenegger's announcement of his candidacy for California governor in 2003 and British actor Hugh Grant's first public appearance after being arrested with a Los Angeles prostitute in 1995.
Leno's comic segments such as "Jaywalking," in which he joked with everyday people on the street, became popular staples.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)