The Do’s and Don’ts for how to end a beloved sitcom

Seinfeld and Cheers (Photo: Illustration by Kyle McCauley for Yahoo / Photo: Getty Images)

Here’s what the series finales for Cheers and Seinfeld have to teach us about ending a long-running sitcom. (Photo: Illustration by Kyle McCauley for Yahoo/Photo: Getty Images)

What’s the deal with modern-day sitcom series finales? Twenty-five years ago this month, 76.3 million viewers tuned in to NBC for Seinfeld‘s farewell episode. And five years before that on the same network, an estimated 93 million people toasted the super-sized end of Cheers. Those are overnight numbers you’d never see a comedy achieving in today’s fractured TV landscape — not on network television, premium cable or streaming. And the legacy of those finales isn’t just a numbers game: creatively, few sitcom finales made since have made as lasting an impression, both positive… and negative.

In case you haven’t binged either series recently, here’s a quick refresher on their respective endgames. Written by series creators Glen and Les Charles, Cheers‘s feature-length finale, “One for the Road,” aired on May 20, 1993, and found Shelly Long’s Diane Chambers making her long-awaited return to the Boston bar where everyone knows your name, knocking her ex, Sam Malone (Ted Danson) for a loop.

Long, Danson and Perlman (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Diane (Shelley Long) returns to Cheers in the series finale, much to the shock of Sam (Ted Danson) and Carla (Rita Perlman). (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

After a whirlwind romantic reunion, Sam decides he’s getting out of the beer-slinging game and moving with Diane to California, encouraging the rest of Cheers’s regulars to similarly move on with their lives. Meanwhile, Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) marries her plumber boyfriend (Tom Berenger), and Woody Boyd (Woody Harreslon) improbably wins a seat on Boston’s city council just in time for Sam to go back on his own advice and return to his one true love: Cheers.

As for Seinfeld, co-creator Larry David returned to the series after a two-year hiatus to pen “The Finale,” which aired in a two-hour block on May 14, 1998. The episode begins with Jerry and George (Seinfeld and Jason Alexander) finally getting the chance to make their sitcom pilot for NBC and celebrate by taking Elaine and Kramer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards) on a jaunt to Paris.

The cast (Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)

From l to r: Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer (Michael Richards) get their day in court in the Seinfeld finale. (Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Before they can American airspace, though, the quartet’s private jet lands in the small Massachusetts town of Latham. While killing time, the friends witness a carjacking and decline to intervene — a choice that lands them in court courtesy of a recently passed “Good Samaritan” law. Cue everyone they’ve ever wronged in the past — from the Soup Nazi to the Marble Rye lady — descending on Latham to make sure Jerry and his pals get what’s coming to them. Sure enough, the series ends with the four stars sentenced to a year-long stint in jail

You couldn’t ask for a pair of sitcom finales that are as different from each other while still staying true to the spirits of their respective shows. That’s why both episodes could, and should, be taught in schools and writer’s rooms as guides for how to wrap up a long-running, much-loved comedy. That’s why Yahoo Entertainment assembled a panel of experts who have written TV comedies themselves — and teach the next generation of sitcom writers — to break down the Cheers and Seinfeld finales for a handy do’s and don’ts guide.

Remember, these experts come not to bury the creative teams behind these episodes, but to educate others on the way they approached the Herculean task of ending a long-running, much-loved TV comedy. After all, if writing a sitcom finale were easy, each one would score 70 million-90 million viewers.

The Experts

Ernie Bustamante: assistant professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television
TV Credits: Liv and Maddie, Lab Rats, Border Patrol

Martie Cook: professor and founding director of the Center for Comedic Arts at Emerson College
TV Credits: Charles in Charge, Full House, Joe’s Life

Shawn Harwell: assistant professor of screenwriting, University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking
TV Credits: Eastbound & Down, Red Oaks

Amy Toomin Straus: adjunct assistant professor, University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts; adjunct professor, Chapman University; instructor, Syracuse University
TV Credits: Townies, Friends, Grounded for Life

The Sitcom Finale Do’s and Don’ts

Do give each character a farewell

Don (Tom Berenger) marries Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) in the series finale of Cheers. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Don (Tom Berenger) marries Rebecca (Kirstie Alley) in the series finale of Cheers. (Photo: Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

While the Sam and Diane reunion provides “One for the Road” with its central narrative spine, little character-based finales are dropped in around the margins. Besides Rebecca’s marriage and Woody’s election, Cliff (John Ratzenberger) bribes his way to a postal promotion, Norm (George Wendt) gets a city civil service gig and Carla (Rita Perlman) realizes she does love her unruly brook of kids after all.

“When a show is ending, people appreciate closure,” Cook says. “Audiences love these people and want the opportunity to see them one final time. Cheers had really wonderful characters and all the characters we wanted to see were in that finale.”

“All the finale had to do was be funny and not betray those characters, and it did exactly that,” Harwell adds. “It leaned into what the show had been about all along. I don’t know if I’ve seen a single episode of that final season besides the finale, but you could plop me in front of those last three episodes and the characters work in the same way they’d always worked.”

Of course, Seinfeld also gives the core characters a farewell — but they have a shared fate instead of individual destinies. Cook calls that choice a “risk,” especially since people tuned into Seinfeld to watch the individual relationships between the core four characters. “You’re putting them together on a plane, and then in a courtroom, so they really are treated as foursome. It’s an interesting choice. Not one I probably would have made, but I’m not Larry David!”

Cheers provides a better example of how to balance individual dynamics within a larger group via a scene towards the end of the finale where most of bar’s regulars sit around smoking cigars and philosophizing about life. “That was an opportunity for each of them to speak to us one last time,” Straus says. “It’s satisfying: we get to visit with each of them and say goodbye.”

Don’t stray too far from home

The cast of Seinfeld in

The cast of Seinfeld spend very little time in their familiar diner booth in “The Finale.” (Photo: NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Here’s an important element of any long-running comedy: location, location, location. Audiences come to know and love the sets they visit every week, to the point where they become characters unto themselves (they are called situation comedies, after all). While the Seinfeld finale starts off in much-loved locations like Jerry’s apartment and the crew’s diner booth, once the setting shifts to Latham, we never return to those familiar places. The last time we see the core Seinfeld four, they’re in a jail cell instead of the diner or the apartment, robbing viewers of a last look at the places they’ve grown to love as much as the people.

“You want to say goodbye in a familiar place,” says Straus, noting that the change in location impacts David’s clever choice to end the finale with a direct callback to the series premiere, with George and Jerry arguing over the placement of a shirt button. “That joke doesn’t entirely work, because I’m in an unfamiliar place.”

Bustamante says the extensive amount of time spent in Latham almost makes “The Finale” feel like the series finale to a different show. “They never make it back to New York, and Jerry’s doing stand-up in jail. That’s not necessarily satisfying for me as a fan of the show.”

For his part, Harwell offers a modest defense of Seinfeld‘s location shifting gambit. “I liked that they got on a plane and were suddenly in this small town. Would a ‘fish out of water’ episode have been funnier in Season 6 as opposed to the finale? Maybe. But the show had also already spent nine seasons in New York.”

In contrast, Cheers takes place almost entirely in the bar, and Cook says that’s the best choice the writers could have made. “That’s where the show belonged, because it’s where we spent so much of the series,” she notes. “The power of that episode is that Sam doesn’t get the girl, but he does get the bar, and he’s back where he belongs.”

And Straus points out that staying in that familiar place also means that Cheers‘s concluding callback pays off in a way that Seinfeld‘s doesn’t. “The first shot of the Cheers pilot is Sam walking down that hallway at the beginning of the day when the bar is empty,” she explains, noting that the last shot of the finale is Sam walking back down that now-darkened hallway in an empty bar after hours. “It’s a beautiful bookend. But, of course, I only know that because I teach the pilot in my writing classes so I’ve seen it a bunch of times!”

Do bring back fan favorite characters… if they have unfinished business

Danson and Long (Photo: Paul Drinkwater / TV Guide / NBC / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Danson and Long in a scene from the Cheers finale. (Photo: Paul Drinkwater/TV Guide/NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

When Diane walked out of Sam’s life at the end of Cheers‘s fifth season, it felt like the final word on their on-again, off-again romance was still waiting to be written. Six seasons later, the show got to put the period at the end of that sentence when Long agreed to return for “One for the Road.” Building the finale around a storyline that hadn’t been revisited in years could have been a risky move, but for Harwell it was also the natural choice.

“The Sam and Diane story was such a hallmark of the early seasons of Cheers, and it was always evergreen in a weird way,” he explains. “There are ways to bring back character that don’t work, but they found a way to do it that was clever and funny. They also gave it the runway to land — I don’t think it would have worked in a regular-length episode.”

Speaking of runways, Bustamante says he was particularly struck by a scene midway through the finale where Sam and Diane are on the plane that’s about to carry them to California, and their new life together. While waiting for takeoff, they are each addressed directly by the cabin crew over the intercom, who vocalize the internal doubts they’re having about each other. “That scene is interesting, because they never did anything like it before,” he notes, calling it a successful example of a “format break” — the moment when a series steps outside of its previously established reality.

“They had never done fantastical things like that where you were inside the character’s heads,” Bustamante explains. “It certainly could not have worked, but it absolutely did. I didn’t question it, and it wasn’t confusing. I probably wouldn’t advise my students to all of a sudden do something fantastical in the finale, but on the other hand, you never have to explain yourself because it is the last episode!”

Don’t bring those fan favorite characters back as “schmuck bait”

Teri Hatcher (Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Colleciton)

Teri Hatcher was one of the parade of cameos on the Seinfeld finale. (Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Colleciton)

Here’s a new addition to your television dictionary: “Schmuck bait.” Straus defines this term — which she learned in many a sitcom writer’s room — as a case where a show “introduces a story that only a schmuck would believe would really happen.” And she actually points to Diane’s return in “One for the Road” as a vintage “schmuck bait” scenario.

“We all knew Sam wasn’t going to go off to California,” she says. “The beginning of the finale is hilarious where Diane returns to town and Sam has to pretend that Rebecca is his wife. But then you take this emotional leap of him getting on a plane, and then pull back from that. When I was on Friends, [creators] David Crane and Marta Kaufman always talked about leaning into stories, and that if you were going to go for something, go for it.”

“All props to the Charles brothers, and I can’t believe I’m armchair quarterbacking them,” Straus continues with a laugh. “It was fun to see Diane come back one last time and have a final curtain call. That I understand: I just wouldn’t have gone on that emotional trip the episode went on.”

Straus points to Seinfeld‘s cameo-filled finale as an example of a story that consciously avoids the “schmuck bait” trap, especially since most of those returning players weren’t there to offer Jerry and his friends an escape or stir up any emotions. “They absolutely did not want to have any emotional resonance to any of those stories,” she explains. “And the main characters really were on trial and went to jail at the end. So good for them that they didn’t do a schmuck bait story and stayed true to themselves. That was a win for that finale.”

At the same time, Straus does feel that Seinfeld maybe brought back more fan favorites than the episode could hold. “It was sort of a greatest-hits parade,” she admits. “It got a little tedious for me,” agrees Harwell. “The fact that they kept flashing back to old clips make it feel like a ‘greatest hits’ episode. A lot of the finale really worked for me, but I got bogged down in the trial.”

But Bustamante makes it clear he’ll go to bat for all the callback cameos. “It was really satisfying to me as a fan, and made me feel connected to the show. It was like it was rewarding the audience by bringing back all of these familiar characters from these familiar episodes. And they were servicing the story, because the whole reason they’re there is to prove how awful Jerry and his friends are!”

Do stay authentic to the characters

George and Jerry in his Jerry's Upper West Side domain. (Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)

George and Jerry in their Upper West Side domain. (Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Reactions to “The Finale” were intensely polarizing when the episode premiered a quarter century ago, with the main point of contention being Jerry & Co. ending up behind bars. While all four experts agree that’s a satisfaction-defying conclusion, it’s also entirely in keeping with how those characters have behaved for nine seasons. “It wasn’t a shock that they were found guilty,” says Bustamante, who also admits that his preferred ending would have seen Jerry getting that NBC show made. “They did break the Samaritan law, and all of those witnesses made the case. If it had been an episode of Law & Order, they would have been found guilty, too!”

“The finale stayed true to the character, and that’s an important thing,” agrees Cook. “They watched a carjacking and they filmed it instead of offering to help. They were the same superficial people we’d grown to know and love. Personally, though, I didn’t want to see them in jail. If a young writer came to me and asked, ‘How should I end the series?’ that would probably be something I’d say to avoid. But there are also a lot of people who appreciate that ending.”

In fact, Harwell says that he has seen the kinds of young writers that would love the unsatisfying nature of the Seinfeld finale come through his classroom. “The thing about Seinfeld is that the characters are horrible, but also harmless,” he notes. “Today, on shows like White Lotus and Succession, the characters are terrible and rich. There’s an appetite for that, and I see it a lot in my students. I literally forced them to write a script with a happy ending at one point this semester!”

Straus thinks that one potential reason why the verdict on the Seinfeld Four fell flat at the time is because the show had already proven the quartet’s awfulness many times over. “People understood that it was the kind of show where nobody learned anything and there were no hugs. I think part of the finale was the writing staff was going, ‘We’re acknowledging that and embracing it.’ But the audience had been enjoying the antics of these crazy people the entire time and that’s why we laughed at Seinfeld so hard.”

“Maybe it would have been more successful [with viewers] if it had ended with them in the diner having the shirt button conversation,” she muses. “Because that’s the story of these people: they just do the same thing over and over again, and nothing really changes for them. It would leave us feeling like they’re just going to keep messing up and getting in their own way, and it’s a cycle that continues. It it were redone today, maybe that’s how to do it. But hindsight is 20/20.”

Don’t be afraid to end without a joke

Every comedy writer dreams of penning the next “Nobody’s perfect” or “You really should wear more sweaters.” But sometimes the best last joke is leaving out the last joke. That’s the road “One for the Road” takes, leaving Sam alone in the bar to turn the lights off before cutting outside to the sleepy night street outside of Cheers. “Graceful is the word that comes to mind,” Harwell says of that final scene. “Sam’s got a new appreciation for the bar, and he’s closing the door for the night, but tomorrow he’s going to open it back up.”

“It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is closure,” adds Cook, a sentiment that Straus echoes. “You don’t have to land [a finale] on a really big joke. In comedy, there’s a time to laugh and a time not to laugh, and I think that last moment is a time not to laugh.”

“Even though Cheers is an ensemble show, at the end of the day it’s Sam’s bar,” Bustamante observes of the finale’s laugh-free final moments. “As a viewer, we’re seeing everything though his eyes. This is the moment where he comes full circle. The best comedies have heart and an emotional through-line, and the ending of Cheers has both.”

Final Grades

The cast of Cheers for the series finale. (Photo: ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The cast of Cheers pose for a series finale press photo. (Photo: ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)

In a clean sweep, all four of our experts picked “One for the Road” over “The Finale” as the better farewell episode. “It had heart, it had soul, it was funny and had these wonderful moments where all the characters were involved,” says Cook. “It’s hard to write one good episode of television, and when you’re able to do that for a three-part finale, that’s really something. I still liked the Seinfeld finale, but it didn’t work as well as Cheers.”

“Those characters and performances on the Cheers finale were so strong, and the jokes landed in a better way,” Harwell agrees. “I do think the Seinfeld finale is really funny and conceptually interesting, but Cheers is the more satisfying of the two. It’s also not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, because of the nature of how they drew that story out on Cheers. I can’t even wrap my head around what a three-part Seinfeld finale might have been like!”

Despite her skepticism about the need for Diane’s return, Straus also gives “One for the Road” the edge. “Cheers attempted a big story that they did a reversal on, whereas Seinfeld didn’t have as much of a story,” she says. “One of the things that most viewers probably don’t realize is that the story gymnastics on that show were just incredible, and that’s what made the series exciting. That wasn’t really happening in ‘The Finale.’ We were kind staying put hearing how terrible these characters had been the entire time.”

“The Cheers finale has a clear emotional through-line,” sums up Bustamante. “What I tell my students is that people may remember a few jokes here and there, but they’ll always remember how a television show made them feel and that’s achieved by having a protagonist with an emotional through-line that comes to fruition.”

“In Sam’s case, it’s the realization that the love of his life is his bar and that makes him the luckiest person in the world,” he continues. “Whereas there’s almost no emotional through-line in Seinfeld. That’s funny as a writing sample or when you have nine seasons of a highly rated show where you can do whatever you want. But for students who want samples that will open doors, I encourage emotional through-lines.”

Cheers is currently streaming on Hulu, Paramount+ and PlutoTV; Seinfeld is currently streaming on Netflix.

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