When NBC’s The Office goes off the air on May 16 after nine seasons, it does so with a big blockbuster episode, one that promises to be full of memories, in-jokes, awkward silences, and maybe even visits from old friends (Steve Carell’s Michael Scott is rumored to be a surprise guest). Still, the finale has to live up to more than just the legacy of The Office; it also has to live up to all the emotional notes we’ve come to expect a sitcom finale to hit. The Dunder-Mifflin crew have their work cut out for them if they’re going to push all the right buttons. (That’s what she said!) Thanks to the shows on the list below, we expect sitcoms to say goodbye in a way that pays sentimental homage to what fans have loved about the program, resolves loose plot ends, and still makes us laugh. That’s a tall order, one that even some of the greatest sitcoms haven’t been able to fill. Still, the 15 on this list approached the ideal in their own way, some more successfully than others. They’re the funny farewells we’ll never forget.
15. WKRP in Cincinnati
The fourth season finale of WKRP wasn’t supposed to be the series finale, but CBS canceled the show, so that was it. Still, the show’s creators must have seen the writing on the wall, as they crafted an episode that did serve nicely as a final farewell. (The show’s title, “Up and Down the Dial,” a phrase from the lyrics of the show’s opening theme, suggests the writers knew a summation was called for.) In the episode, scary station owner Mrs. Carlson (Carol Bruce) finally plans to implement her long-threatened format change and make the AM radio outlet into an all-news station. But the staffers get her to admit something that, in retrospect, explains the whole series: that she’d always allowed her incompetent son, station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) to run the station into the ground as a money-losing tax dodge. (This may have been a nose-thumbing metaphor for the way CBS had treaded WKRP over four seasons, kicking it around the schedule as if the network wanted the show to lose viewers and force its own cancellation.) Mrs. Carlson’s revelation forces her to keep the existing album-rock format. Which means that viewers get to imagine DJs Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap rocking into eternity.
Scrubs‘ troubled ratings history ended up yielding two series finales. The first, after eight seasons on NBC, marked the departures of most of the principal cast. Before he leaves Sacred Heart, J.D. (Zach Braff) gets to hear what mentor Dr. Cox (John C. MicGinley) really thinks of him, remembers past patients (living and dead), and imagines a vivid possible future life. But then, ABC picked up the show for another season. With a mostly new cast and a class of new medical students, it was more like Scrubs: The Next Generation. That year’s season finale marked the end of a chapter (the first semester winds down, and the students pay homage to the dead by thanking the families who donated cadavers) while suggesting intriguing possibilities for the future. The episode ended up being the series finale after ABC decided to take the show off life support. Of the two finales, hardcore Scrubs fans naturally prefer the first; after all the emotional farewells, it was hard for viewers to come back and endure all that a second time.
This is still the most controversial sitcom finale of all time. Written by Larry David (the inspiration for Jason Alexander’s George Costanza, and the future creator/star of outrage-fest Curb Your Enthusiasm), the supersized episode saw Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer put on trial for callousness. Nine seasons worth of catchphrase-wielding guest stars were trotted out as character witnesses against them. It was as if David had been saying that the show’s loyal viewers were either fools or sociopaths for caring about these four jerks for nine years. What’s more, the show that had become famous for refusing to moralize or impart life lessons was suddenly appearing awfully moralistic and judgmental. But David still got the last laugh. Found guilty, the four frenemies express no remorse and begin serving their time by having the same inane conversation about shirt buttons that they had in the series’ first episode. So yeah, no one learned anything. And we got to enjoy a lot of cruel, polarizing laughs along the way. Along with The Sopranos, Seinfeld can boast the ballsiest, razziest series farewell ever.
12. The Larry Sanders Show
Talk show host Larry (Garry Shandling) had spent six seasons telling viewers, “No flipping,” a plea for them not to change the channel, but the series finale was entitled “Flip.” After all, Larry had spent the season preparing to pull the plug on his show rather than submit to further network interference, so it was finally okay for viewers to click away. Still, you wouldn’t have wanted to miss the spectacle as Larry prepared to hand over his stage to a coked-up Jon Stewart (hey now, don’t laugh – who do you think’s going to get the Late Show when David Letterman quits?). Larry plans a finale that he hopes will rival the one Johnny Carson threw for himself when he left The Tonight Show, but while he does get Jim Carrey to sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the song comes with a bitter rant from the rubber-faced comic about Larry’s fair-weather friendship. And Jerry Seinfeld upstages the tearful goodbye from needy sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). Larry, too, gives the most heartfelt speech of his career, telling the viewers that he doesn’t know what he’ll do without them. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how Larry will survive without an audience; the episode ends with a typical gag, as Larry says of the fiasco he just aired, “I hope we beat Leno.”
11. The Office (BBC)
Fans of Ricky Gervais‘ original British version of The Office were treated to two finales. In the first one, at the end of Season 2, boss David Brent (Gervais) gets fired on what is supposed to be a triumphant day for him, and lovelorn Tim finally declares his feelings for receptionist Dawn, only to have her spurn him and run off with her douchebag boyfriend. (Tim tries to put on a brave face, telling the confessional interviewer that his life will go on after the cameras stop rolling.) It was a typically uncompromising and bitter episode, thoroughly in keeping with the tone of the series thus far. But then, there came the Christmas special, seemingly an afterthought, in which the principals reunite a few years later and get a chance to set things right. So the show and its fans got to have it both ways. David tells the interviewer he’d like to be remembered “simply as the man who put a smile on the face of everyone he met.” He’s gotten his wish, if not in a way he could have imagined.
Arrested Development departed the way it had arrived, with just a small but devoted cult of fans who loved the show’s rapid-fire spray of deadpan, absurdist gags, including in-jokes that frequently pushed against the fourth wall like an elbow to the ribs or a wink to the faithful. The finale was in keeping with that spirit, with many of the meta-jokes coming at the expense of Fox, which had the audacity to cancel the series after three low-rated seasons. The last episode settled the legal troubles of George Sr. that had been the plot catalyst for the whole series, but it also left the wacky Bluth family in chaos, with Lindsay about to leave her marriage, GOB stealing his nephew’s teenage girlfriend, Lucille selling the family business, and Michael discovering his son’s sorta-incestuous relationship with cousin Maeby. The series ends as George Michael tells his father that family is a bond that lasts forever – both a blessing and a curse on this show. Oh, and Maeby pitches Ron Howard (in real life, AD‘s producer and narrator) on a series about the Bluth family’s misadventures. Howard replies that the premise would work better as a movie, a wink to viewers that seemed to promise a big-screen version in the near future. That hasn’t come to pass yet, though AD is finally returning as a series, seven years later, on Netflix, with 15 episodes available to stream starting May 26. Which means that the 2006 finale wasn’t really the finale after all. That’s the kind of head-spinning paradox that fills AD fans with glee.
9. The Cosby Show
After eight years of paternal wisdom, maternal eye-rolls, and kiddie adorableness, Cliff and Clair Huxtable were finally ready to be empty-nesters. Bill Cosby could bask in a job well done: He’d saved the sitcom (and NBC), he’d made prime-time safe for well-to-do African-American characters (and vice versa), and he’d raised a fictional brood of well-adjusted youngsters. Plus, he’d turned his celebrated stand-up routines into eight seasons of solid laughs. He deserved a self-congratulatory moment that acknowledged the show’s legacy beyond the Huxtable family’s townhouse. And so the show ended with Cliff and Clair (Phylicia Rashad) dancing alone in their house. Then they broke the fourth wall, waltzed off the set, past the audience, out of the studio, and into history.
Cheers was the comedy that invented the soapy sitcom cliffhanger, dragging out the sexual tension between Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long) for years, then disrupting their relationship with multiple break-ups and reunions. Yet after 11 years of postponing its characters’ evolution, the finale’s tying up of loose ends seemed abrupt. And out-of-character, too. Dimwit Woody gets elected to the city council. Norm, usually rooted to his bar stool, gets a job, thanks to Woody. Money-grubbing Rebecca marries a blue-collar guy. And Sam gets back together with Diane and prepared to move to California with her. . . well, almost. Sam regains his senses, dumps Diane, and goes back to his first love, the bar. He alone manages to strike all the right notes, winding down the series by adjusting that picture of Geronimo on the wall (an in-joke homage to an early Cheers mainstay, the late Nicholas “Coach” Colasanto) and telling a late-night customer, “The bar’s closed.”
The Friends finale was thoroughly predictable but no less satisfying for that. After ten years, would you really have been happy if Ross and Rachel hadn’t finally gotten together for good? Or if Chandler and Monica hadn’t finally become suburban parents? Even Phoebe found long-term romantic happiness with Mike (recurring guest star Paul Rudd). And Joey got to go to Hollywood to pursue his acting dream. (Alas, in the spinoff Joey, the dream proved more enticing than the reality.) Besides, after a decade of sipping coffee from oversize mugs at Central Perk or lounging in Monica’s oversize apartment, it was time for these now-thirtysomethings to leave their cushy nests and grow up.
6. Sex and the City
How satisfying was the Sex and the City finale? So satisfying that the two reunion feature films that followed seemed thoroughly superfluous. After all, the capper to the show’s six seasons managed to give all four gals the happy endings fans wanted for them, if a little more tearfully than the characters themselves might have envisioned. Miranda makes peace with living in Brooklyn with her husband, son, and dementia-stricken mother-in-law. Charlotte and Harry are finally going to be parents, albeit of a baby adopted from overseas. Samantha finally feels an emotion akin to love, recognizing after Smith’s grand romantic gesture that he really is the most decent and caring guy she’s ever dated. But most of the fireworks (and waterworks) are reserved for Carrie and Big – who finally wakes up from a six-year coma of emotional unavailability – to realize that Carrie is The One, forcing him to fly to Paris and rescue her from her tragic mistake of moving in with that self-absorbed Russian artist. Carrie gets her white-knight fantasy, albeit with a few slapstick laughs thrown in. Still, there was one last, major, ultimately anticlimactic reveal: after six years, we finally learned that Big’s actual first name was. . . John.
5. 30 Rock
Creator/star Tina Fey seemed determined not to make 30 Rock‘s sendoff a conventional sitcom finale; for one thing, she made sure to get Liz Lemon’s wedding and adoption of a child out of the way earlier in the show’s seventh and final season. With those plot points already taken care of, she was free to blow the last episode on a thoroughly superfluous plot about Lutz’s successful power play over the rest of the TGS‘s writing staff, forcing them to order a prosaic last lunch from Blimpie’s before they went their separate ways. The only truly out-of-character event was Jack’s brief crisis of self-confidence, but his protégé Liz was able to talk him off the proverbial ledge, proving that she really had taken his years of occasionally dubious advice to heart. All along, the “Last Lunch” episode was filled with the rapid-fire absurdist gags that had always characterized 30 Rock, but the most touching absurd gag was saved for last. In a nod to the St. Elsewhere finale (where it was revealed that the entire series was the dream of an autistic child looking at a snow globe), there was a jump to the future, where Liz’s great-granddaughter was pitching to NBC the series we’d been watching all along, based on tales of office lunacy handed down to her from the matriarch. And she was pitching to an ageless Kenneth, still in charge. The idea that, generations from now, there will still be an NBC, with a benign Kenneth still holding court at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, may be the most poignant and touching element of the entire last episode.
Frasier closed out its 11 seasons much the way its predecessor Cheers had, by giving nearly every one of the characters a happy ending. Unlike Cheers, it spent much of its final season building up to that finale, so that the character developments seemed organic. And funny. Niles and Daphne finally had a baby, and Martin and Ronnie finally got married, though no one would have predicted that both events would take place at the same time, in a veterinarian’s office (terrier Eddie swallowed the wedding rings.) Roz got promoted to station manager, and Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) decided to accept a job offer for a higher-profile radio show in San Francisco, closing out the Seattle chapter of his life. But in the show’s final seconds, we learn that Frasier instead flew to Chicago to pursue Charlotte (Laura Linney), the dream woman he met during his final weeks in Seattle. It was an impulsive, romantic move, the kind of thing that the old cerebral, uptight Frasier would never have done. We didn’t know what would become of Frasier’s career or whether he and Charlotte would live happily ever after, but we got to see him grow and learn some life lessons.
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
If the sitcom series finale is a genre of its own, then The Mary Tyler Moore Show invented it, just as the series had invented the workplace-as-surrogate-family comedy genre in the first place. Mary Richards (Moore) makes the point explicit when management fires everyone at the TV station except idiot anchor Ted. “Last night I thought, ‘What is a family?'” she says in her farewell speech to her colleagues. “They’re just people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being my family.” There’s a group hug and a group rendition of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” before the gang marches out of the office and Mary shuts off the light. The episode set the benchmark for all future finales with its blend of laughter, tears, life lessons, and leaving the viewers with the sense that, whatever would befall the characters afterward, they were gonna make it after all.
The Korean War sitcom lasted nearly four times as long as the actual war, so it was fitting that the show wound up its 11 seasons with an epic-length, 150-minute finale. In this episode, entitled, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” the end of the war means the breakup of the 4077th gang, which proves especially difficult for Hawkeye (Alan Alda). Up until then, he’d been the show’s voice of sardonic sanity in the midst of the chaos of combat, but he’s just witnessed an incident that drives him over the edge (a Korean woman smothering her baby to keep its cries from exposing a busload of people to enemy troops). Much of the episode deals with Hawkeye fighting his way back from his nervous breakdown. As a result, the episode (directed by Alda) is more dramatic than funny, but in a way that seemed apt with the darker, more serious turn that the series had taken in its final years. (The episode also sees Father Mulcahy permanently deafened after a mortar attack and Charles traumatized after teaching some POWs to perform Mozart, only to see them killed in the final hours of the war.) So it’s hard not to tear up when Hawkeye finally takes off for home and sees through the helicopter window the message that best friend B.J. Hunnicut had left for him, spelled out on the ground in rocks: “GOODBYE.” Some 106 million people watched the finale, the biggest audience ever for a scripted entertainment show, and a number unlikely ever to be surpassed.
Bob Newhart’s second classic sitcom offered eight years of slightly surreal goofiness, as provided by innkeeper Dick Loudon’s (Newhart) eccentric neighbors and staffers, but the finale amps the surrealism to new heights. There’s the sequence of Vermont villagers trudging away from their hometown to the tune of Fiddler on the Roof dirge “Anatevka,” after a conglomerate buys out the whole town (save Dick’s inn) and turns it into a golf resort. There’s the sight of backwoodsmen Larry, Darryl, and Darryl as well-dressed moguls after the windfall, with brothers Darryl and Darryl uttering their first words of the entire series (shouting in unison “Quiet!” to their chatty wives). Finally, in the best sitcom switcheroo ever, there’s Newhart waking up as Robert Hartley, his character from the 1970s The Bob Newhart Show, next to his 1970s TV wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), and realizing that the entire eight seasons of Newhart were just Robert Hartley’s nightmare. Viewers did not feel cheated; this was the best it-was-all-just-a-dream scenario ever, one that didn’t dishonor the eight seasons of sublime silliness that preceded it. The M*A*S*H finale may have garnered the biggest ratings, but when TV fans think back to the sitcom finale that pleased them the most (and offered the biggest, most satisfying laughs), they think of Newhart.