Despite all the secrecy, we do know a couple of things about tonight's "Seinfeld" finale.
We know Kramer's not going to teach some Chinese POWs to play Mozart. We know Jerry's not going to finish his autobiography and have some big-name comedian agree to star in it. And we know the whole gang's not going to hug and exit singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary."
How do we know this? Because those endings have all been done before, as valedictories from some of the finest sitcoms ever to grace our TV screens.
Finales have not always been such a big deal. Neither "I Love Lucy" nor "The Honeymooners" did anything special for their final shows. When "The Fugitive" ended its run with Richard Kimble finally confronting the one-armed man, such closure was the exception, not the rule.
That began to change when "The Dick Van Dyke Show" left the air in 1966. While the final episode didn't exactly wrap things up, it did make it clear that times were changing for Rob and Laura Petrie and the staff of "The Alan Brady Show."
The first "event" finale probably came in 1977, when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" voluntarily concluded its run. And things reached a fever pitch in 1983 with the closing of "M*A*S*H."
"We wanted to leave something for posterity, and we did," says Burt Metcalfe, one of eight writers who received credit for the "M*A*S*H" finale. "It was very exhilarating."
For the writers, the men and women forced to wrap up several seasons' worth of greatness in (usually) a single half-hour show, such grand finales are a mixed blessing.
On the down side, it's tough saying goodbye. "There was a lot of sadness, leaving your friends behind, people you had worked with for six years," remembers Carl Reiner, who both created "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and wrote the last of the 158 episodes. "Everybody cried."
But there's also satisfaction in being able to fashion your own ending -- especially in a business where few get that chance, since most television shows are canceled, rather than leave oftheir own accord.
Stan Daniels has seen it both ways: As a writer for "Mary Tyler Moore," he helped put together the finale that's become the standard against which all others are measured. And, as a writer for "Taxi," he and the rest of the staff were caught unawares when NBC decided against renewing the show for a sixth season.
"It always feels good to have the final say," says Daniels. "With 'Mary,' we wanted to close the door, or turn out the light, as we literally did. With 'Taxi,' it was very tough going off the air; we had ended the season thinking it was going to be picked up."
So what's the trick to a successful final episode? Some writers go for the funny bone, others opt to emphasize sentiment. On one memorable occasion, an entire series boiled down to a single scene -- and a punch line that became one of TV's greatest moments.
Here's what the writers of four classic television finales remember about the experience.
TV shows don't come any bigger than the final "M*A*S*H," which still stands as the highest-rated TV series episode of all time.
The 2 1/2 -hour opus includes enough subplots for an entire season: Hawkeye (Alan Alda) suffers a nervous breakdown; Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) teaches some POWs to play classical music, only to watch them die in combat; B. J. gets to return home -- he thinks; Father Mulcahy loses his hearing; Klinger has second thoughts about leaving Korea; and the war ends. Radar (Gary Burghoff) had left the series four years before and was not in the final episode.
The stable of writers who worked on the final show -- eight received credit -- wanted to give each character the chance to occupy center stage, says Metcalfe, one of the series' most prolific directors and writers. With so many writers, it would have been easy for the show to turn into a fragmented mess. So one writer was chosen to oversee the entire process.
Guess which one?
"Alan Alda was the one constant," Metcalfe says. "Alan wrote from beginning to end, and with all the various permutations of the staff."
The result was an episode that some criticized for being too sentimental. That's a charge Metcalfe has little inclination to dodge. "Sentimentality, if it's reasonably restrained I don't see that as a big negative."
As for advice, he'd suggest the folks at "Seinfeld" sit back and enjoy all the hoopla.
"We all know that, in this business, there is absolutely no correlation between hard work and success. There are lots of shows that work just as hard but the vast majority will never experience this kind of impact. So it needs to be enjoyed and needs to be savored."
'The Dick Van Dyke Show'
For Reiner, who based much of the series on his experiences as a writer for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," the finale was all about irony.
In it, Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) asks wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) to read the autobiography he's just completed -- a plot that allowed Reiner to fill much of the episode with clips that recall the series' most memorable moments. As she finishes, Alan Brady (played by Reiner) barges in to announce he's buying the rights to Rob's book for a sitcom in which he'll star.
The episode -- and the series -- ends with Rob and Laura locked in a kiss, as Alan, Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie) talk excitedly about the new venture.
"Now it's Carl Reiner playing Alan Brady, who's going to be playing Robert Petrie, who was really me," Reiner explains. "We really went full circle."
Like "Seinfeld," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" could have stayed on the air longer. But, Reiner explains, he and the cast figured they had taken the show about as far as it could go.
"We were young enough to want to move on," says Reiner, who went on to a long career in TV and movies, but still counts the "Van Dyke" show as the most creative period of his life. "We knew that we were starting to repeat ourselves. The network offered us a lot of money if we stayed on for a sixth year, but we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. We went out feeling good about ourselves."
Reiner avoided closing any doors in the finale, if only so people would have the luxury of deciding for themselves how Rob and Laura would carry on. "I didn't want anybody to disappear I got upset when Edith Bunker died [on "Archie Bunker's Place," the successor to "All In the Family"], because you want to remember nostalgically the things you like, and not think of them as being dead."
Although a big fan of "Seinfeld," Reiner does not envy Larry David, who wrote tonight's finale. Penning a send-off for a show about nothing, Reiner suspects, can't be easy.
"In the 'Van Dyke' show, Rob had a fully established life in New Rochelle, he worked for a living, he had a kid, he had a wife," he explains. "These people [on 'Seinfeld'], none of them have any relationships to anybody but their parents, who are dysfunctional."
Of course, old hand that he is at such things, Reiner knows how he'd write tonight's ending.
"I wanted Elaine and Jerry, in sort of a half-drunken stupor -- they've been in Vegas playing the gaming tables and being lucky and winning thousands of dollars because she blew on his dice -- and somebody asks them to stand up for them at a wedding ceremony.
"So they're in a wedding chapel, and they look at each other, and they say, 'Let's get married.' And so you end with the two of them married in a Las Vegas chapel."
'Mary Tyler Moore Show'
No final episode has better blended comedy with pathos than the one six writers crafted for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
A new management team has taken over WJM-TV, and anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) is convinced he's about to be fired. But that's not what happens; instead, it's everyone but Ted who is fired. The episode closes with Mary, Lou, Murray, Ted, Sue Ann and Georgette embracing en masse, then walking out the door while singing, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." In the final scene, Mary pauses at the door, gives the newsroom one last look, then flicks off the light switch.
"That light switch still kills me," says Lloyd, whose post-"Mary" career has included stints on "Cheers" and "Frasier."
For the writers, each of whom was assigned certain scenes (the closer was handled by series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns), emotion was the key to ending what was always a critical and popular favorite. It was no accident that one of the episode's key scenes had the cast reaching as one for a box of tissues.
"We knew it would be watched, and that people would sniffle a lot," says Lloyd. "At the party immediately following, the centerpiece at every table was a box of Kleenex."
In fact, emotions ran so high during the final taping that writer Ed. Weinberger had to employ drastic measures to get the cast through it.
"He was afraid the cast was going to come out, and every line was going to trigger tears -- particularly Mary, who was a real sentimentalist," Lloyd recalls. "So he noticed that shooting across from us was some sort of Western that involved Indians in full regalia. He went and grabbed a bunch of them, brought them back and seated them in the back desks of the newsroom.
"Nobody told Mary, so when she made her first entrance, she said a couple lines and turned around, and there's Geronimo and Sitting Bull sitting at the desks back there. It was just the right note, because she broke up, but in the right way. That got her giggly, and gave her the right attitude and energy we needed."
No sitcom ever went out with a bigger surprise -- or a bigger laugh -- than "Newhart."
Few people remember the final episode's plot, which has Japanese developers buying up nearly the entire town and turning it into a golf course. The lone holdout? Bob's inn, which he steadfastly refuses to sell.
But many remember the final scene, in which Newhart wakes up in bed alongside Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), his wife from the old "Bob Newhart Show." Turns out the whole Vermont thing has been a crazed dream.
The result was a classic finale that had everyone talking the next morning. TV Guide recently rated the 1990 episode as one of television's most memorable moments.
"We were really shocked," says writer Mark Solomon, one of the writers responsible for the zinger. "It was just a little gag at the end of the show, that's all we thought it was."
But it caught America by surprise, making the joke even more delicious. A fake ending, in which Newhart died, was leaked to the tabloids. Even the crew at the final taping wasn't let in on the joke in advance. Perhaps most remarkably, the studio audience present at the final taping was asked not to spoil the surprise -- and they didn't.
"The whole thing was done in such secrecy," Solomon says. "It got to the point where we practically had to put a bag over Suzanne's head as we were taking her to the set."
Thankfully, Solomon says, the "Newhart" finale was not subject to the sort of ballyhoo accompanying the final episode of "Seinfeld." Had it been, the surprise ending never would have worked.
"No way," he insists. "There would have been somebody on the set who would have gotten hold of the script and slipped it out. And now with the Internet and everything, forget it."
Pub Date: 5/14/98