Jay Leno went out with a bang.
According to preliminary Nielsen numbers, 14.6 million people watched Leno hang it up as host of NBC's "Tonight Show." It was the biggest audience Leno has had in more than 15 years.
The last time "The Tonight Show" averaged more viewers was the night of the "Seinfeld" series finale in May, 1998. That episode, which featured Jerry Seinfeld as a guest, brought in nearly 15 million people.
It was Leno's fourth-largest "Tonight Show" audience ever. Besides the "Seinfeld" finale telecast, the only stronger pulls were the night of the "Cheers" finale (22.4 million) and Leno's 1992 debut (16.1 million).
For the final bow, "The Tonight Show" brought on a plethora of celebrities, including longtime friends and mainstay punchlines of the veteran host.
The 63-year-old Leno, who took over the show in 1992 from Johnny Carson, was joined in his last episode by Billy Crystal, who was also Leno's first guest. Crystal led a rendition of "So Long, Farewell" that included appearances by Oprah Winfrey, Jack Black, Carol Burnett, Sheryl Crow, Jim Parsons, Kim Kardashian and Los Angeles Clipper Chris Paul.
Steve Carell, Miley Cyrus, Martha Stewart and Matt Damon were among the celebrities who contributed taped goodbyes. Country singer Garth Brooks was the musical guest for the send-off.
Jimmy Fallon, who will take over "The Tonight Show" later this month, followed Leno with a little more than 6 million viewers, his best number since his post-Super Bowl telecast in 2012.
Counting only regularly scheduled episodes, the Leno-boosted "Late Night" drew its highest viewership since 1993, which was the last David Letterman-hosted telecast of the franchise.
The build-up to Leno's exit has made for strong ratings in his final weeks.
Leno's second-to-last week scored his biggest audience since 2010, averaging 4.99 million viewers and 1.42 million in the key demo. That's the best since the host's first week back on the show in March 2010 after the botched hand-off to Conan O'Brien.
Fallon also had his biggest overall weekly viewership since 2009 with an average of 2.38 million tuning in. Both hosts out-delivered their time-slot talk show competition for the week.
Twitter: @rfaughnderCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun