Last Laughs (and Sappy Moments) From Sitcom Finales

The problem with most comics is they never know when to get off stage, and it's the same for sitcoms when it comes time for that last laugh. With so much pressure on a show's heavily hyped final episode, can the public be anything but disappointed?

"Will & Grace" is the latest high-profile comedy to sign off, and you can bet there will be some soppy, crowd-pleasing moments, as Grace Adler and her gay pal head off to the far-off land of perpetual syndication.

Like the finale of "Six Feet Under," the NBC comedy will conclude with a "fast forward" to offer a glimpse of the characters' futures. And, of course, there's a little suspense, with Grace, now pregnant, and her estranged husband, Leo, back in the picture.

Should Grace raise the kid with Will? Can Karen keep swilling gin through the not-so-fabulous silver years? Will an aged Jack return to cabaret song-and-dance with "Just Jack ... on Geritol"?

That Final Ratings Grab

In recent years, networks have looked at final episodes as that one last ratings grab. A big audience is guaranteed, but so is the potential for sitcoms to take themselves way too seriously and exit in in a miasma of sentimentality.

"Seinfeld" always prided itself on being "the show about nothing." But the 1998 finale was an all-out extravaganza. And while co-creator Larry David rejoined the show to write a proper goodbye, few would call it anything close to the show's finest moment, as Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer get arrested under a Good Samaritan law after they witness a crime and, as usual, do nothing.

George and Jerry end up in jail, lost in a typical conversation about the tragedy of a shirt with poorly positioned buttons, revealing either too much or too little of a chest. "Haven't we had this conversation before?" George asks. They did, of course, on the first episode. But the concept seemed way funnier than the execution, and the overwrought plot may have violated the show's very nature.

"Sex and the City's" big goodbye was a tear-jerker, with boyfriend Big on a mission to Paris to woo his on-again, off-again girlfriend back to New York. Oh, they don't marry, but we do learn that Big has finally revealed his first name, and for those who forget, it's "John." As in "John Big" or "Big John" or whatever.

Of course, these finales -- while critically derided -- generate huge numbers. The "Seinfeld" farewell drew 76 million viewers, and the closest a TV show has come since was the final episode of "Friends" six years later. Some 52.5 million tuned in -- and advertisers paid a record $2 million for 30-second spots -- as Monica and Chandler moved to the suburbs to raise twins, Joey moved to L.A. (for his disastrous "Friends" spinoff), and Ross and Rachel remained stuck in second gear.

Interestingly, networks never thought of the gold mine they had in their soon-to-be-canceled shows until 1977, when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" signed off in what would become an era-defining "group hug."

"We'll all need some Kleenex," says the curmudgeonly Lou Grant as the cluster of Mary's friends and colleagues migrates en masse to Mary's desk for tissues.

Things got even more weepy a few years later for the final episode of "M*A*S*H" -- a two-and-a-half hour cry fest, wherein Hawkeye suffers a nervous breakdown, Father Mulcahy goes deaf, and the perpetually AWOL Klinger falls in love and stays in South Korea, even though the war is over.

The final scene shows Hawkeye looking down from a chopper at the 4077 MASH unit, where his buddy B.J. has left a message in rocks that reads "Goodbye." Call it over-the-top sentimentality, but 106 million people were watching.

One might long to return to a more innocent time, when TV shows were simply canceled with little fanfare, and usually for good reason. "The Brady Bunch" left the air with Bobby selling hair tonic that made Greg's hair turn orange. Perhaps it only figures. The Bradys never acknowledged sex. How could they address cancellation?

Just a year after "M*A*S*H," "Happy Days" signed off with Fonzie adopting an 8-year-old boy. He had literally and figuratively "jumped the shark" in an episode seven years earlier -- and this final installment only proved the point.

In the years since, a hit TV show has rarely hit the chopping block without a big send-off, even if it was long past its prime. Even shows that existed just for laughs took the time to mark their end, and these are often among the show's most-watched episodes.

Here's a look at some of the other landmark sitcom send-offs.

"The Cosby Show" (1992) -- Cliff and Claire Huxtable literally dance off the air, ending eight seasons of "The Cosby Show" by waltzing off the set and out the studio door to bid adieu to viewers. This feel-good episode includes Cliff fixing the perpetually broken doorbell and the dyslexic Theo graduating from New York University.

"Newhart" (1990) -- In one of the most surreal moments in TV history, Bob Newhart ends his show by waking up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette -- his TV wife on his previous sitcom, "The Bob Newhart Show."

"Honey," Newhart says, "you won't believe the dream I just had. I dreamed I was an innkeeper in a crazy little town" -- implying that "Newhart," a TV show about a Vermont innkeeper, was just a dream in the mind of his former character, psychologist Bob Hartley.

Newhart was so bent on keeping the ending a surprise that he actually cooked up a fake ending and fed it to the tabloids. In it, he died and went to heaven, where he met God, played by George Burns.

"Roseanne" (1997) -- "Roseanne" also went out with an "it was all a dream" ending, but the results were more of a nightmare. Up until the final episode, viewers had been led to believe that the blue-collar Conner family had won the lottery and that Roseanne's TV husband had survived a heart attack.

But in the finale, Roseanne reveals in a bizarre voice-over that the show's entire final season was all fiction that she wrote as grief therapy. Her husband's apparent survival had been just part of her fantasy.

In the voice-over, Roseanne slips back and forth between herself and her character, talking about the origins of the show and her relationship with the characters, in a monologue that might have been even more confusing than the troubled star's personal life at the time.

"Cheers" (1993) -- Sam and Diane flirt with marriage one more time. Woody is elected city councilman and Rebecca marries her plumber boyfriend. But just as Sam agrees to move West with Diane, he realizes that the friends he's leaving behind at the bar are the closest thing he has to a family -- and he can't go. He goes back, flicks off the bar lights and when someone tries to come in for a nightcap, he says, "Sorry, we're closed."

"Frasier" (2004) -- Dr. Crane finally leaves Seattle, only to lose another soul mate, as the lovely Charlotte moves to Chicago. His agent assures him that as a reasonably good-looking straight man in San Francisco, he'll be "like a Snickers bar in a fat camp."

But Frasier is filled with melancholy. His brother, Niles, has a baby. His father marries. And as his plane lands, we find that the angst-ridden doctor has followed his heart -- not his career -- to the Windy City.

"Everybody Loves Raymond" (2005) -- As if to lampoon maudlin final episodes on other shows, Ray concludes his TV run by going to the hospital -- not for a dramatic, life-threatening procedure, but rather to have his adenoids taken out. In one moment the doctor informs the Barone family that Ray has not awakened after his surgery, but then comes back a few seconds later to say everything is fine.

Of course, Ray's melodramatic mom hops into bed with him, giving our hero another nightmare that will live on in syndication.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.