Leno's favorite Q&A is that those queried about how Mount Rushmore was formed often reply, "erosion." His head-shaking reaction: "The wind and rain not only picked four presidents, it picked four of our greatest presidents!"
Was he the most daring, most innovative, most surprising force in late-night? His critics and even clear-eyed admirers said no, and Leno doesn't argue with them — but that's not what counts, he adds: "Whether you like the host or not, you cannot say it's not been a success. A football team might not have the most sophisticated players but can win the Super Bowl."
Leno cannot be called unsophisticated but he is determinedly un-show biz. He makes note of his modest New England upbringing, the high school friends he remains close to, his three-decade marriage to wife, Mavis, and the many "Tonight" staffers who remained loyal throughout his tenure.
Hollywood has been a place to get to tell jokes to a big audience, reap millions of dollars to be carefully saved and keep a safe distance from the circus.
"When this is over, I don't get to my table at (posh restaurant) Morton's and" — here, he feigns dismay as he mimics a maître d' — 'Sorry, Mr. Leno, this is Mr. Fallon's table.'"
Instead, the day after Leno steps off the "Tonight" stage, the one designed for him, he will travel to Florida for a handful of club dates, his wife at his side. And, he said, he'll be content with that.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore in New York contributed to this report.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org and on Twitter(at)lynnelber.