The Most Talked About Talk Show Farewell Moments

In 2015, television networks were said to be "changing talk-show hosts faster than Zsa Zsa Gabor changed husbands" — an antiquated joke Vulture repeated as a way to honor Johnny Carson's 30 years on CBS. Thanks to such genius hosts as Carson and his celebrated colleagues, multiple generations have been entertained as talk show TV has enticed Americans keep tuning into their favorite shows every weekday or night. 

Not everyone who's tried has been able to continuously capture such attention (think Magic Johnson and his syndicated "The Magic Hour," which was on-air for just about two months in 1998), but a handful of entertainers have endured, per ScreenRant. These talented talk show hosts possess the abilities necessary maintain their viewership — think breaking down the news in a comedic fashion and interviewing guests with intelligence and compassion in an entertaining manner. In fact, countless fans depend on their favorite hosts to get them through the week, and these stars have spent a good chunk of their careers giving these audiences apt reason to watch them. 

Due to retirement, new opportunities, and other reasons, a host of the finest talk show entertainers have moved on — but not before leaving behind their own brand of memorable farewell moments. To relive these seminal episodes, keep scrolling to find out how such greats as Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey, and Conan O'Brien, among others, said goodbye to their popular shows by offering final, off-the-charts content their faithful audiences will likely never forget.

Robin Williams gave Johnny Carson some wacky farewell moments

Just before Johnny Carson went off the air for good in 1992, the quintessential host of "The Tonight Show" commandeered two nights to offer farewells. Carson had been the king of late-night television since 1962, so it was not surprising that those final days were a big deal, asserts Biography

On May 21, 1992, Carson welcomed Robin Williams and Bette Midler, reports Decider. Up first, Williams rushed in holding an odd-looking rocking chair equipped with guitar-shaped rockers he claimed came from Elvis' estate. The comic, who rose to stardom as an earthbound extraterrestrial in the sitcom, "Mork & Mindy," rocked blond hair as his brown locks had been dyed for the movie, "Toys." Williams had Carson in stitches for most of the segment — and vice versa, like when the pair traded Ronald Reagan impersonations.

Then, wearing a kooky black ensemble decked out in giant daisy appliques, Bette Midler joined the show. The ebullient mood continued as Midler belted out a reworking of "You Made Me Love You." After that, she perched on Carson's desk while the pair performed an intimate duet of "Here's That Rainy Day." Finally, to end night one of Carson's farewell show, Midler appeared centerstage for "One For My Baby, and One More For the Road," inserting Carson's name to personalize the dazzling number. The consummate host's eyes welled up as the song came to a close.

On his very last broadcast, Johnny Carson appeared alone for the entire episode

The very last broadcast of NBC's "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" on May 22, 1992, was a low-key affair. The hour-long show started with a montage of clips surrounding Carson's first night on the job he held for three decades. In all, he passed through the show's curtains nearly 5,000 times after his familiar cue from perpetual sidekick Ed McMahon, who announced, "Heeeeere's Johnny."

As usual, the beloved host delivered his monologue from a stool placed centerstage, per CNN. Carson admitted he enjoyed every minute of his responsibilities at "The Tonight Show," and if at all possible, he would "do the whole thing all over again." Explaining that the in-studio, invitation-only audience was made up of "family, relatives, and friends" of his large staff, Carson said that the evening would have been "perfect" if his son, Rick, who died in a tragic accident, had been there. He ended that thought by saying, "But I guess life does what it is supposed to do. And you accept it and you go on." 

Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott pinned down the reason why Carson endured, noting that, "Carson was always poised, always knew when to pivot. Cool, unflappable, precise, he was comedy's blue diamond, the master practitioner, the model of excellence." Wolcott called Carson's "Tonight Show" reign the "ultimate audition" for any comic lucky enough to be called upon to appear on his unforgettable, all-encompassing talk show.

David Letterman's last Top 10 List was a doozy

On May 20, 2015, David Letterman stepped away from hosting late-night television after 33 years, first with NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman" and then with CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman." According to NPR, the affable comic "went out ... the way he came in: on his own terms, guided by a subversive sense of humor that was severely allergic to sentiment or phoniness." As proof, Letterman's very last show began with a cold open from a series of living presidents repeating Gerald Ford's memorable announcement, "Our long national nightmare is over." 

Meanwhile, his final Top 10 List included famous friends mentioning "Things I've Always Wanted to say to Dave." Alec Baldwin, Barbara Walters, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Peyton Manning, and Tina Fey did the honors, before Bill Murray offered the number one spot with, "Dave, I'll never have the money I owe you."

Musical entertainment was provided by The Foo Fighters led by Dave Grohl with "Everlong," while a frenetic reel from all aspects of Letterman's time on late-night television played over the song. Highlights included a wide-eyed Drew Barrymore provocatively dancing on his desk as she lifted her shirt to flash the host on his birthday and a real fight between Hollywood's Andy Kaufman and Memphis rival Jerry Lawler. An excessive use of pyrotechnics played out the segment and, ultimately, Letterman's late-night hosting duties.

Stephen Colbert's farewell episode included a song featuring a celebrity-filled cast

"The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert" aired on Comedy Central 1,447 times before the storied host signed off for a final time on December 17, 2014. Stephen Colbert was moving on after nine years, replacing David Letterman as the new "Late Show" host on CBS in New York City's Ed Sullivan Theater, per AOL. The Los Angeles Times called Colbert's Comedy Central show ending a time to "mourn," but quipped that "he may be a little crazy but he seems nice enough and he can carry a tune; he should do just fine on 'The Late Show.'"

For the final time, Colbert's signature take as "America's purveyor of 'truthiness'" once again gave way to his take on "ego-driven punditry, moral hypocrisy and government incompetence," per Comedy Central. This was especially so during the finale opening, when he shot and killed Grimmy, the Grim Reaper, during a chess game, causing Colbert to become "immortal." 

During this last episode, Colbert was also on hand while special guests gathered for a massive musical goodbye set to Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again." With Randy Newman on the piano, famous faces such as Jon Stewart, Barry Manilow, Willie Nelson, Bryan Cranston, Sam Waterson, Katie Couric, Big Bird, James Franco, Michael Stipe, Ric Ocasek, Henry Kissinger, George Lucas, Cyndi Lauper, and more could be spotted joining in on the old standard just before "The Colbert Report" went off the air for good. 

Larry King was sung off his final show by Tony Bennett

CNN's "Larry King Live" received the ultimate send-off on December 15, 2010, as requisite highlights — including a kiss with Marlon Brando — flew by in clips from the show's 25-year run. Larry King shared a split screen with then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pronounced that this was officially Larry King Day in the state. Meanwhile, network news anchor Katie Couric wished him well, as did his close-knit family, including his two sons, who obviously weren't camera shy. 

Eight living presidents also ushered him off in style, with Barack Obama calling King "one of the giants of broadcasting." Also among the final "Larry King Live" highlights, Bill Maher announced that crooner Tony Bennett was waiting in Louisiana to toast King with his jazzy rendition of "The Best is Yet to Come," before asking for everyone to give the late-night host a standing ovation. 

Dr. Phil, Ryan Seacrest, and Maher also sat at the CNN desk with King's family for this final goodbye, as the host, with the gravely voice and unmistakable Brooklyn accent, was dressed as fans would expect: He had on his trademark suspenders and a matching tie reminiscent of Mickey Mouse. His then-10-year-old son, Cannon, did an accurate impression of his famous dad that had everyone laughing. The boy also said he was looking forward to seeing his father return to CNN for regular specials. Then, King signed off, inserting "so long" in place of "goodbye."

Oprah Winfrey gave a heartfelt last speech from her Chicago stage

After "The Oprah Winfrey Show" had cornered the afternoon talk show market for 25 years, Oprah Winfrey declared that September 9, 2011, would be her final show, according to ABC News. Ultimately, what was to have been a single episode morphed into a series of three specials, the first two of which took place at Chicago's Union Center. On night one, Winfrey came out wearing the color purple, and her first guest was Tom Hanks — much to the delight of the 13,000-person audience, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Hanks took over, letting Winfrey off the hook when it came to hosting what turned into a loving goodbye roast. Among the roster's A-listers was everyone from Tom Cruise to Queen Latifah to Madonna. Along with "best wishes" from some of Winfrey's favorite people — including Gayle King, Stedman Graham, and Nate Berkus — Beyoncé made music with a surprise performance of "Run the World (Girls)." 

For her last episode, per, Winfrey returned to the studio to offer a final goodbye, thanking the audience for supporting her. "Sometimes I was a teacher and more often, you taught me," she said in part. Mentioning how she'd heard from a viewer who said, "'Oprah, watching you be yourself makes me want to be more of myself,'" the iconic host added that she wanted everyone to feel exactly the same way — and ultimately, Winfrey made sure they did on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Jay Leno was feted in song by a cavalcade of famous people

Jay Leno brought a "mellow, California-flavor" vibe to "The Tonight Show" when he took over from Johnny Carson in 1992, reports Live About. He worked from behind the desk on the late-night talk show for 22 years, on and off. According to Vulture, Leno was briefly replaced by Conan O'Brien, but that infamously didn't last long, as the enduring comedian returned in short order to command his post with his own brand of hosting. 

For his farewell show, Leno invited Billy Crystal to the stage during the February 2014 finale of his "The Tonight Show." The actor and comedian had been the initial guest for this incarnation of the NBC program, and he would be the last, too. As for music? Leno invited good friend Garth Brooks to perform "Friends in Low Places," while the typically unflappable Leno visibly broke down as this version of the late-night program came to a close.

The upbeat highlight of this final episode was when Crystal led an enthusiastic group of famous people through the paces of a revised version of "So Long, Farewell" from "The Sound of Music," reports NBC News. Among the personalities performing this rewritten television epitaph, meant as a tribute to Leno, were Kim Kardashian, Carol Burnett (who offered her signature Tarzan yell), Oprah Winfrey (who suggested Leno buy everyone a car), Jack Black, Sheryl Crowe, Jim Parsons, and NBA star Chris Paul. And just like that, Leno called it quits on what he called "the best job in show business."

Jon Stewart was honored in song by Bruce Springsteen during his talk show farewell

On August 6, 2015, as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" aired with the titular host for the last time, viewers were treated to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, reports Rolling Stone. Springsteen and the guys hadn't been seen playing together for nearly a year, but performing for mega-fan Jon Stewart was a given. The host called this "his own personal moment of Zen" as he welcomed his fellow Jersey-ites. The band gave its all with "Land of Hope and Dreams," along with a bit of "Born to Run" as they played Stewart off the Comedy Central air forever.

One Time critic believed that during his nearly 17 years on "The Daily Show," the liberal host "changed TV political comedy" as he "made a difference by showing folks how b.s. works." Stewart belabored this point during his last late-night shot at this topic, insisting that "the best defense against bulls**t is vigilance — so if you smell something, say something."

Amid a slew of Stewart's former correspondents — like John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Steve Carell — returning, he covered the GOP presidential debate before it even happened. Then, as the segment concluded, future host Trevor Noah quietly measured his future digs. A true highlight, however, was when pal Stephen Colbert gave Stewart a surprise send-off, telling his friend and colleague that he had been "infuriatingly good" at commanding his massive crew, and that they were "better people for having known" Stewart. Cue the tears!

Conan O'Brien tried a joint on stage with Seth Rogen

The lead-up to the last episode of "Conan" on TBS began on Monday, June 21, 2021, with Conan O'Brien's closing week kicking off with guest, collaborator, and fellow "Saturday Night Live" pal Bill Hader. During this funny bit, O'Brien told Hader that he makes him laugh until he's "visibly unsettled," and after his guest offered some hilarious impressions, including his take on "SNL" chief Lorne Michaels, actor Paul Rudd crashed the interview to add even more levity by getting in one last "Mac and Me" prank.

The headline-making highlight of the following night's show was when guest Seth Rogen offered O'Brien a joint. As a weed entrepreneur, the actor said that since Conan was facing some downtime, "I would suggest — this is going to be hilariously on brand — try smoking a lot of weed." The host admitted he doesn't smoke marijuana because he "enjoys" his "lucidity." But finally, after Rogen promised he would have "a really good time," Conan took a hit. A lot of laughter ensued as Rogen professed, "I'm so happy with what just happened." 

Dana Carvey was on the "Conan" roster on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. As their interview began, he pulled out a crumbled piece of paper while announcing he was about to try out a new character, leading O'Brien to quip, "This is my second to last show, and you're trying s**t out!" Perhaps audiences would expect more important things to be on hand for this auspicious occasion, but the bit was hilarious nonetheless.

How Conan O'Brien said goodbye in his farewell Conan episode

Jack Black helped Conan O'Brien close out his reign on late-night television on June 24, 2021. The actor-singer arrived leaning on a cane while wearing a foot brace, which prompted O'Brien to tell a tale stranger than fiction. 

Black had been dancing up a storm in preparation for a planned musical sketch, in which he was meant to "fake an injury" — which turned out to be no joke, because Black "actually injured [him]self for real" while rehearsing the accident. He rolled his ankle, but luckily an ambulance was on hand to help ... sort of. It was a "fake ambulance" with actors playing the medics — you know, for the planned bit — who ended up driving to a nearby drugstore to pick up real medical supplies for Black. Noting that the farewell episodes for "legends" like Johnny Carson and David Letterman were "meticulous," O'Brien self-deprecatingly quipped that the whole ordeal "felt fitting," saying, "We're the only show that would ever do that."

When O'Brien signed off for the last time, he explained in a heartfelt speech that while "devot[ing] all of [his] adult life ... to pursuing this strange, phantom intersection between smart and stupid" in his comedy, he knew if he got there, the result would be "magic." Thanking everyone for "join[ing him] in this really crazy and seemingly pointless pursuit," O'Brien suggested to viewers, "Try and do what you love with people you love ... If you can manage that, it's the definition of heaven on Earth."