updated 02/07/2014 AT 7:00 AM ET
•originally published 02/06/2014 AT 12:00 PM ET
In his 22 years hosting The Tonight Show, Jay Leno crafted a winning formula: a bit of silliness, crossed with snark, and delivered with an utter lack of pretension.
As Leno prepares to hang up his Tonight Show spurs Thursday night, let’s look back on some of the highlights of his decades-long tenure, from his news-making interviews to his 4,600 jokes about Bill Clinton:
That Hugh Grant Interview
After winning a nasty war of succession with David Letterman, Jay found himself trailing his old rival in the ratings, until one perfect question – “What were you thinking?” – launched him into first place, a position he’d hold for more than a decade.
The Dancing Itos
Jay got a lot of mileage out of the O.J. Simpson trial, but none of his skits were more bizarrely enjoyable than this troupe of flamboyant Lance Ito impersonators.
Steve Irwin’s Appearances
Letterman had Jack Hanna for longer, but Leno had the freewheeling Irwin, who brought a madcap enthusiasm to the placid Tonight Show set.
His Post-9/11 Show
The L.A.-based Leno didn’t – couldn’t – have the emotional reaction to 9/11 that New Yorkers David Letterman and Jon Stewart did, but in the turbulent weeks after the attack, Leno’s dependable professionalism was its own kind of salve.