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"?
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.