Parting Shots WRITERS FOR FOUR LONG-GONE SITCOMS REMEMBER THE LAUGHTER AND THE TEARS THAT MADE UP THOSE FINAL EPISODES.

May 14, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

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.

'M*A*S*H'

Burt Metcalfe

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'

Carl Reiner

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.

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