Jay Leno Goes Off the Air, for a Month

"You're fired!"

Those were among the last words ever uttered -- shouted, really -- on "The Jay Leno Show," which went dark Tuesday night. Leno had taken a satellite call from Donald Trump who said he had a message from his NBC bosses.

The gag drew laughs from the audience and Leno alike, although it wasn't entirely accurate: Leno will appear right back in his old chair as host of the network's "The Tonight Show" next month.

The show ended quietly and with little of the fanfare that accompanied Conan O'Brien's last taping as host of "The Tonight Show" just over two weeks ago. The disgruntled red-headed comedian joined Will Ferrell and a host of world-class musicians in a performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" before calling it quits.

VIDEO: David Letterman appears in a TV ad with Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey.
David Letterman and Jay Leno's Super Bowl Ad

The relative soft-spokenness of Leno's departure was perhaps quite deliberate. Variety, the show business trade paper, reported that "NBC is trying to rehab the images of both Leno and 'The Tonight Show.'"

NBC announced Jan. 7 its plan to cancel the 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show" and move it to 11:35 p.m., pushing O'Brien's show to 12:05 a.m.

The move was announced after flagging ratings for the Leno show led NBC affiliates to complain that Leno was a weak lead-in to their local newscasts.

O'Brien's show, which had been on the air since June, also had achieved markedly lower ratings than those of his predecessor, Leno.

VIDEO: Jay Leno talks to Oprah Winfrey about the late night war.
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In the days following the announcement, O'Brien and Leno -- not to mention comedians at other networks -- took to the airwaves to joke about the controversial shake-up. O'Brien's bitterly comic jabs at NBC helped double his show's ratings from earlier in the year and triggered an outpouring of goodwill and popular support for the perceived underdog.

Among the guests on Leno's final show Tuesday were Ashton Kutcher, "Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe and Bob Costas. The host kicked off with a tame jab at his employer: "The show was supposed to last two years but our sentence was reduced to five months for good behavior," he joked, insisting that he never thought the 10 p.m. time slot would work.

VIDEO: immy Kimmel applies Ken Burns filmmaking style to the trouble at NBC.
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And indeed it didn't. The finale came two days after his surprise Super Bowl commerical, in which he and his former late night rival, David Letterman, flanked Oprah Winfrey at a pseudo-Super Bowl party. Letterman spearheaded the creation of the commercial, thinking viewers would find the odd trio funny.

On his show Monday night, Leno thanked Letterman for the opportunity and said he was happy to promote "The Late Show."

"It was great to see my old friend again," Leno said. "It was wonderful. He was very gracious. We talked about the old days and we told some jokes and it was really good to see him."

(For his part, Letterman mentioned on his show Tuesday that Leno had just taped his last episode. "I wonder what he'll do now," he joked.)

VIDEO: NBC settlement with OBrien clears the way for Jay Lenos return.
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At the end of January, Leno opened up to Winfrey in his first major interview about NBC's late night shake-up. He said that while he felt bad for O'Brien during the whole process, he also felt bad for himself.

"I did, I felt really bad for Conan," Leno said in an interview with Winfrey that aired on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" Jan. 28. "I think it was unfair. But it was unfair for me."

Leno contended O'Brien's exit from "The Tonight Show" wasn't his fault, saying O'Brien's low ratings damaged the franchise and spelled his end.

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