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Jay Leno’s long goodbye to ‘The Tonight Show’

Jay Leno performed for the Mass Dental Society at the Westin Hotel in Boston on Jan. 24, 1999.

John Bohn/Globe staff/file

Jay Leno performed for the Mass Dental Society at the Westin Hotel in Boston on Jan. 24, 1999.

After more than 20 years hosting the crown jewel of late-night television, Jay Leno steps off “The Tonight Show” stage in Burbank, Calif., for the final time Thursday night, ending a reign that saw a dramatic change in the television landscape.

While plenty has been said over the years about the lengths to which Leno was willing to go to inherit Johnny Carson’s throne, once he got it, he knew how to hold onto it. Acutely aware that you can’t please all the people all the time, the Andover native and Emerson College graduate aimed to please a lot of the people most of the time.

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Other late-night hosts followed the David Letterman model of risky humor, but Leno’s risk was not being risky at all, and it paid off. Leno kept the show atop the ratings for much of his time by providing a steady stream of broad comedy and a safe haven for celebrity guests to hawk their wares.

“He plays to the mainstream,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at the ad-buying firm Horizon Media. “He was the caretaker for the show. He wasn’t going to damage the brand. He worked hard; he rarely took a vacation. He told some jokes and you’re never going to see his name in the tabloids. ”

Leno himself has been the first to admit that he is a straight-up-the-middle guy when it comes to jokes for the show. (His early stand-up act was another matter, say longtime fans.) He would zing politicians — President Bill Clinton alone was on the receiving end of 4,607 barbs, according to a recent study — and celebrities, but never too hard, and his famous man-on-the-street “Jaywalking” segment found him teasing regular folks with the same soft touch.

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Now 63, Leno hands the keys to Jimmy Fallon, only the sixth “Tonight” host in 60 years whom Leno has graciously compared to Carson, the longest-tenured host of the show. Like Leno, Fallon, 39, is eager to please and reluctant to offend, but he also brings a wackier sensibility that recalls Letterman, especially in the competing host’s earlier years.

“This is really the end,” Leno, who briefly left the show about five years ago, said in an e-mail to the Globe. “When I left in 2009, I was probably going to go to another network or something else. So it feels like it really is the end this time.”

Leno spoke to Steve Kroft at “60 Minutes” during a recent exit interview about simply wanting to make people laugh and understanding the demographic mathematics necessary.

“For every smart, insightful joke, there’s a goofy joke and a silly joke and a fun joke, and then a clever joke.” Leno said. “That’s the trick; you try to have something for everybody.”

He has taken some shots at NBC (which again asked him to make way for a younger host, just as it did when Leno was pushed or stepped aside to make way for the ill-fated succession of Conan O’Brien in 2009), indulged his musical tastes, and has allowed a more uncensored version of himself to appear. On Monday’s show, he noted that upcoming guest Matthew McConaughey was his pick for the best actor Oscar and said he couldn’t say things like that before “because we have all the actors on.”

After Thursday, Leno will no longer have to play the diplomat, and an era will come to an end, not only for the host and his fans, but for his brand of mass appeal late-night talk show. The television landscape has changed dramatically since Leno first took up residence at “The Tonight Show” in 1992.

Among the many changes is the abundance of late-night options, offering a comedy niche for every taste. Leno faced more competition for the coveted viewer demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds than any of his predecessors, going up against David Letterman on CBS, Jimmy Kimmel on ABC, Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central, Conan O’Brien on TBS, Chelsea Handler on E!, Adult Swim, and Arsenio Hall in syndication, among others that have come and gone.

Shifting viewer habits have also altered the landscape, with more of the younger demographic unplugging from linear television and checking in with late-night shows on demand via viral video clips, a domain mastered by Leno’s younger competitors. Like Kimmel and O’Brien, Fallon has proven adept at using social media and other online platforms like YouTube to create water-cooler chat long after the show has aired, like his recent duet with Bruce Springsteen sending up Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Add in the rise of DVR playback between 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. and you get even more erosion, with more 18-49 viewers watching shows they recorded, rather than watching all the broadcast late-night shows combined, according to Adgate.

“It’s changed,” Adgate says of late night in general. “It’s been gradual. There’s been erosion and competition, first from the networks and then the cable networks, and now it’s from things like DVR playback and streaming.”

In the face of that fractionalization, it makes sense that Leno has said he has no interest in doing another traditional talk show.

But the question remains, what will he do? Leno spoke vaguely to “60 Minutes” about doing something that merged with his interests, perhaps in a History Channel vein. Those who watch Leno’s webshow “Jay Leno’s Garage” — in which he endearingly and gleefully indulges his life’s other public passion, expensive cars — could see that becoming a series on a cable outlet.

“I really enjoy doing that,” Leno acknowledged in his e-mail. “And you know you can’t recreate ‘The Tonight Show’ and I don’t want to do ‘The Tonight Show Lite.’ So, yeah, I probably will do more things like that.”

Most tantalizing is whether Leno will appear on “Late Show with David Letterman.” Letterman recently told Howard Stern that he reached out to bury the hatchet with his former friend-turned-rival. Perhaps they will tamp the dirt down with an on-air reconciliation opposite “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”?

“It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets a comedy show online, maybe with Yahoo!” Adgate said. “There’s a lot of talk. Will he go to CNN; maybe he’ll replace Piers Morgan? Will he just play Vegas? I don’t think he’s going to go to another network; those jobs are full now. Or he will do primetime specials on NBC.”

One thing he will do for certain is continue the stand-up career he never abandoned, logging roughly 100 shows a year during his hosting stint. (And famously saying he lived off that money and banked his “Tonight” salary.)

Will his stand-up gigs become a repository for all the things he hasn’t been able to say during the years he’s had to navigate late-night diplomacy?

Or has he gotten into a groove so deep in the middle of the road that he won’t be able, or doesn’t care, to rediscover his edge, the scrappy, mouthy kid from Andover?

Whatever he does, those with tickets to Leno’s Friday performance in Sarasota, Fla., may be in for an interesting show indeed.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.
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