By Adam B. Vary
May 29, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Image Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBCKevin Eubanks began his final night on The Tonight Show pretty much like any other in his 18 years as Jay Leno’s sideman: Sitting back in his chair, strumming his electric guitar, a placid smile plastered on his face. After Leno played one of his trademark putting-my-face-on-someone-else’s-body jokes — this time as a rowdy fan at a recent Lakers game — Eubanks even managed to play along with the gag, however halfheartedly: “Wow, man,” he mumbled to the host, “I didn’t know you were into basketball. That’s wild.” And when Leno finally mentioned it was Eubanks’ last show, he did it to set up another joke about Venus Williams flashing the crowd at the French Open. “Kev is leaving to pursue his true passion,” smirked Leno, “following the Williams sisters on the tennis tour.” (For the record, Leno did later note that Eubanks is actually leaving to pursue a music career and help Los Angeles high school students participate in music programs.)

It was that kind of night for pretty much the entire hour: Leno and the show undercutting Eubanks’ departure with feeble cracks at the exiting band leader’s expense. The farewell montage of highlights from Eubanks’ time with Leno included Eubanks accidentally remarking that he had a tiny manhood, Eubanks eating a corn dog licked by Lakers player Rick Fox after he lost a bet with Leno, Eubanks flubbing a simple joke about the U.S. economy (the punchline involved “happy endings”), and Eubanks remarking, “I’ve masturbated in a lot of places, but not in a tree, man.” (I’d explain that last remark if it made any difference at all.) And what was the big finish to this warm-hearted remembrance? Leno and Eubanks “singing” and “dancing” in an ‘N Sync “Bye Bye Bye” parody. Har!

Stranger still, after the show came back from commercial, Eubanks was nowhere to be seen. The cameras never cut to him, even when guest Colin Farrell cracked a tree masturbation joke himself. When the show came in or out of commercial breaks, we got shots of Eubanks’ bandmates, but not of Eubanks himself. It was remarkably odd enough to make me wonder whether Eubanks had simply left the studio.

Then, in the last segment of the night, Eubanks finally got a moment of genuine feeling and recognition. Instead of a musical guest, Eubanks took to the stage to play an original instrumental song called “Adoration.” Leno introduced him as “an incredible musician and one of the best damn guitar players you’ll ever find,” and then Eubanks just sat and played his soft, melancholic song on his acoustic guitar, surrounded by signs of tribute from the Tonight Show staff to him, and his name “Kev” in lights behind him. “Couldn’t have done it without you,” read Leno’s message, replete with his (literally) trademarked self-portrait doodle. After Eubanks finished, the Tonight Show host walked over, and the two shared what has to be one of the more awkward hugs between two grown men I’ve ever seen.

Did you catch Eubanks’ final night on The Tonight Show, P-Dubs? Should he have gotten a better send off, or was it in keeping with how Leno generally runs his show? And will you miss Eubanks’ brand of genial camaraderie?

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