Last Songs of Late Night: A History of Final-Episode Musical Guests

When it comes to standout episodes in late night, few are as memorable as a series finale.

Some shows have taken this as a cue to dream big, while others have kept it simple—but there’s one constant: It’s always a personal affair.

Really, how could it not be? Over time the show and the showman become intertwined; the program becomes a personal reflection of the host, so their farewell episode calls for a heavy dose of sentiment. Add in the parasocial relationship with the audience, and you’ve got a lot of emotion to let out in 60 minutes or less.

Given this, it only makes sense that most hosts would choose to tuck their show to bed with a song. Which song they choose and who they get to perform it often ends up saying more about the show and its host than any clip package or final words from the host themselves ever could.

Here’s a look at the songs that the biggest stars of late night chose to help them say goodnight that one last time.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1991)

Johnny Carson’s actual final episode was mostly a clip show, with no proper guests or live musical performances at all. Although he delivered some touching final words at the end, it was arguably his penultimate show that packed the greatest emotional punch. It was then that Bette Midler, a personal favorite of Carson’s, performed four songs, including most memorably “One for My Baby and One More for the Road.”

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It may well have been the image of a tearful Carson as Midler serenaded him with her final song that inspired each of the musical performances that follow below.

Late Night with David Letterman (1993)

David Letterman originated NBC’s Late Night franchise in 1982, and over eleven years he remade NBC’s once sleepy post-midnight hour into the hippest and most comedically influential show of its era. But two years after he was passed over to succeed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show for Jay Leno, it was time for Letterman to move on to greener pastures at CBS, where he’d host his own 11:30 p.m. show.

To end his last hour at NBC, Letterman requested the one musical guest he’d always wanted to have on the show: Bruce Springsteen, whose unbilled appearance was a surprise to the audience and to viewers at home: He sent Letterman off with “Glory Days.”

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For a program that brought a raucous energy of its own to late night, The Boss proved to be the perfect end note.

The Arsenio Hall Show (1994)

The only host to make a dent in Johnny Carson’s longtime stranglehold on late night, Arsenio Hall put music front and center on his show, which helped to infuse The Arsenio Hall Show with a one-of-a-kind party-like vibe. So, when he went out after a five year run, who better to bring the party to a close than the legendary James Brown, who performed some of his greatest hits, ultimately playing Hall out with “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

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The 2013 revival of The Arsenio Hall Show didn’t get a chance to stage its own finale, as the series was unexpectedly cancelled after previously earning a Season 2 renewal, but Hall did have another memorable final episode 25 years earlier.

Hall was a relative unknown in 1987 when he was hired as one of a series of guest hosts for FOX’s The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers after Rivers was fired. The network had already cancelled the show and was prepping its replacement (the infamous flop The Wilton North Report), but Hall proved to be an impressive host—so much so that network signed him to be The Late Show’s permanent guest host for the show’s final 13 weeks on the air.  

By the time those 13 weeks were up, ratings had improved, and Hall had made a name for himself. (Shortly after leaving the show, he shot the film Coming to America with Eddie Murphy, who was then the biggest movie star in Hollywood.) So even though his show was ending, Hall was a star on the rise.

Perhaps to drive home that point, Hall himself performed a cover of The Temptations’ “Get Ready (Cause Here I Come).” Over the course of the song, he was joined on stage by his bandleader Mark Hudson, his announcer Clint Holmes, and his final guests Emma Samms, Marlon Jackson, and Shari Belafonte-Harper.

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A month later, FOX tried to woo Hall back as permanent host of a resurrected Late Show, but by then it was too late. He’d already signed with Paramount Television, with whom he would launch The Arsenio Hall Show a year and a half later.


From the mid-90s through the late aughts, late night went through a period of slow but steady expansion. There was the launch of The Daily Show on Comedy Central (first hosted by Craig Kilborn, and then Jon Stewart), The Late Late Show on CBS (first hosted by Tom Snyder and then Craig Kilborn), and Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC. There were a fair number of also-rans—short lived shows that came and went quickly—but otherwise it was a long period of relative stability for late night’s more established shows.

The same can’t be said for the years that followed, beginning with NBC’s ill-fated passing of the Tonight Show torch from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien in 2009.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien (2009)

Over his sixteen years behind the desk at NBC’s Late Night, Conan O’Brien went from a literal unknown to comedy royalty. Poised to fulfill his lifelong dream of hosting The Tonight Show, his Late Night exit was arguably the most triumphant of any on this list, and O’Brien was keenly aware of the opportunity it presented.

As O’Brien would later put it himself, “when you do your last show after 16 years, you’re like a guy who’s gonna be executed. You can ask for anything you want for the final meal. And so I just asked for the moon.”

At that point it had been more a year and a half since The White Stripes had performed together, but O’Brien was able to coax them out of semi-retirement to perform a unique version of “We’re Going to be Friends,” which would later become the theme song to his podcast Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend.

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Jack and Meg White’s appearance on the last Late Night would be their last-ever performance as a band. Making the performance even more special, it’s seen by White Stripes fans as a particularly unique occurrence, as drummer Meg opted to play guitar for it.

The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno (2009)

The, uh, first time Jay Leno left The Tonight Show, his last guest was the guy he passed the torch to: Conan O’Brien. His last musical guest was James Taylor performing “Sweet Baby James,” and Leno introduced the segment by explaining his personal connection to the song:

“One of my most vivid memories in leaving Boston in the early ‘70s to come out to Hollywood and try to get into show business… There was a song playing on the radio. It stays with me to this day. I was driving in my car, and part of the song goes “ten miles [behind me] with ten thousand more to go.” And I go “Man, that’s right. I’ve been about ten miles outside of Boston… I don’t know what I’m doing.” But that song always stuck with me. I asked James to come and sing it tonight, and he really had to move heaven and earth to be here.”

The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien (2010)

The circumstances surrounding Conan O’Brien’s departure from The Tonight Show less than a year after taking it over are well-known. Put in a less-than-ideal situation by NBC, he chose to leave the 11:30 show rather than move it to midnight, and settlement negotiations between O’Brien and NBC ran through his last week on the air. So how do you end something you didn’t really want to end—and on short notice, at that?

O’Brien’s formal musical guest on his last Tonight Show was Neil Young, who sent him off with “Long May You Run”—a song Young actually wrote in memoriam of his first car after it broke down. (If you’re wondering, it was a 1948 Buick Roadmaster hearse, and he called it “Mort.”)

Conan has said he is amazed by the fact that Neil Young has remained authentic throughout his career — no doubt an applicable description of Conan on his last Tonight Show. As he said of his run during his farewell remarks: “I did it my way with people I love. I do not regret one second of anything that we’ve done here.”

While Neil Young was O’Brien’s last musical guest, “Long May You Run” wasn’t technically the last musical performance on Conan’s Tonight Show. After delivering his farewell remarks—ending with the memorable “If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen”—O’Brien said “as proof… let’s make something amazing happen right now.” And so Coco closed out the show by grabbing his guitar and performing “Free Bird” with a Lynyrd Skynyrd-styled Will Ferrell, Beck, Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper, and Ferrell’s very pregnant wife Viveca Paulin (Seriously: she gave birth hours later), backed by The Tonight Show Band.

This performance also proved prescient for Conan’s immediate future plans. As part of his settlement with NBC, he was barred from appearing on television for over seven months, so he launched a live tour. “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” was a music-heavy comedy show, with O’Brien singing and playing guitar alongside his house band and special guests. He still cites it as a career highlight.

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The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno (2014)

Four years later, it was time for Jay Leno to say goodbye to The Tonight Show again, this time for good. For his second last show, he requested another favorite song, asking Garth Brooks to perform “The Dance.” (Before the song, Brooks said a few words to Leno, calling him “the dearest friend to entertainment.”)

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (2014)

When Jimmy Fallon left Late Night to begin hosting the Tonight Show, he closed out his final 12:30 show by performing a cover of The Band’s “The Weight” alongside the Muppets band The Electric Mayhem.

It was actually a very moving, sentimental moment, for a couple reasons: (1) When Fallon’s Late Night began, he and his staff had grown fond of some legendary pipes outside the studio that had been covered in Muppets-esque decor by Jim Henson, Frank Oz, & co. while they waited around to tape an appearance on The Jack Paar Program in 1964. (2) One could argue the chorus of song represents a kind of mission statement for Fallon’s late-night shows — as if he’s telling viewers his feel-good entertainment is there for them to “take a load off.”

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After the song, Fallon left Studio 6A and walked across the hall to Studio 6B, where his new Tonight Show studio was waiting for him. (Late Night was also shot in 6B, but the show moved to an exact replica in 6A for its last six months, to allow for his Tonight set to be built.)

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (2014)

Rather than closing with a musical performance, Ferguson’s last show opened with one: “Bang Your Drum” by Dead Man Fall, a band from Ferguson’s native Glasgow, Scotland. Ferguson had originally invited the band onto his show earlier in the year, but the group couldn’t obtain a visa to make it happen.

The episode cold-opened with a montage of Ferguson and various celebrities lip-syncing and drumming along to the recorded track, before transitioning into a live performance of the song featuring the host taking over the vocals while standing on his desk, backed by a choir, his house band, and Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

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While “Bang Your Drum” feels personally reflective of Ferguson, it also seems like an apt choice to send out any late-night host. It’s inspiring, and it seems like a victorious reflection from the host about the work they put in to land and maintain these long-running dream jobs.

The Colbert Report (2014)

To end his Comedy Central show, a still in-character Stephen Colbert performed a rendition of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” joined by an absolutely insane lineup of celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, news, politics, and more in studio — and even more in clips, including The Colbert Report’s staff.

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The star-studded array of guests was an impressive feat in and of itself. The fact that they all appeared live rather than in a series of clips is an even crazier achievement in booking and production. But it was also reflective of the show’s one-of-a-kind run. One often walked away from a Colbert Report bit not just amused, but impressed by the effort it required.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (2015)

To cap off Jon Stewart’s original 16-year tenure on The Daily Show, the show ran a special hour-long episode. (Actually, even longer: It ran 8 minutes over.) And if something’s running long, it’s probably because a Bruce Springsteen performance is involved. 

At Stewart’s request, Springsteen performed “Land of Hope and Dreams” to bid the host farewell—and then tacked on the last verse of “Born to Run” as Stewart, his family, and the TDS staff came out to dance along. (E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg then handed Stewart his drumsticks as a parting gift.)

For a show that ushered in a new era of sardonic political humor in an increasingly exhausting political climate—the optimistic Springsteen song was a hopeful note to end on. Stewart may have been frustrated, but he wasn’t cynical. Like the song, he believed in the promise of a better tomorrow.

Late Show with David Letterman (2015)

More than two decades after making the move to CBS, David Letterman decided it was time to retire. But how to mark 33 years in late night, a record that may never be beaten?

Letterman called upon his very favorite band to play his very favorite song. Fifteen years earlier, he’d found great comfort in the Foo Fighters song “Everlong” while recuperating from a quintuple bypass. When he returned to the program following that surgery, he requested that they perform the song on his first show back, and the band cancelled tour dates in South America to make it happen. From that point forward, as Letterman put it when introducing them on his final show, they were “linked for life.” Their live performance was set to an epic video montage of moments from Letterman’s two late night shows.

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As executive producer Barbara Gaines recalled, “We started talking about the last show years before [Dave] retired… He said, ‘We’re gonna have to have a big ending montage, and of course we’ll do it to the Foo Fighters live.’”

Conan (2021)

By the time Conan O’Brien ended his run on TBS, Conan had been shortened from a full-hour program to a half-hour and had done away with musical guests.

(The final musical performance on the hour-long version of Conan was his house band, Jimmy Vivino and the Basic Cable Band, performing Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” in their final appearance.)

For the last episode of the 30-minute show, final guest Jack Black made sure he still had time to perform one last musical sendoff: a parody of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Though a decidedly low-fi production compared to most of the other entries on this list, the song was delivered by Black with an absurdist silliness that had marked O’Brien’s entire late-night career, but particularly TBS’ Conan.

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The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (2022)

Speaking of lo-fi performances, when it was Trevor Noah’s turn to sign off from The Daily Show, his staff and audience surprised him by singing along to a recording of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein number from Carousel. The song, as covered by Gerry and the Pacemakers, is a crowd staple at football matches, originating with Liverpool F.C., of which Noah is a fan.

The Late Late Show with James Corden (2023)

“You are gonna be absolutely shocked at how we are gonna end this show. Guess what? We’re gonna end with a song. I know, what are the chances?” That was how James Corden teased the final segment of his Late Late Show before tossing to his last commercial break.

Corden ended his last show with an original piano ballad about his eight years in the States doing the show. It was a nice throwback to how he ended his first Late Late—which was a conscious decision on the part of executive producer Ben Winston: “I always liked the song you did at the end of episode. And I think that might also be an effective, sweet way of ending… our show,” he told Corden in a finale writers meeting.

Unlike most other songs on this list, Corden’s stands out because it puts the host alone the spotlight.

And yet, a song with the refrain of “Thanks for watching / That’s our show” was fitting for a final segment that marked not just the end of Corden’s run, but the Late Late franchise as a whole. By Corden’s last episode, it had already been announced that CBS would be replacing The Late Late Show with a reboot of the panel show @midnight.

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“This will be the last ever thing that’s ever on The Late Late Show ever,” Corden told the audience from behind the piano as the crew prepped the final segment. And with that, a program that had been on the air for 28 years came to a close—once again, with a song.

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