It goes by many names: Fade out. Exit, Stage Left. Credits. Blackout. The Button. Fade to black. Exeunt. It’s the ending, and it can elevate, obfuscate, or give you one last big laugh.
A comedy movie ending can be a natural breaking point for the story, like when a comedian coughs. It can go big, with a musical number. Some will jab you with a quick laugh, like a punch after the ref has called the round. Of course, some comedy endings make you wonder if it was ever even a comedy at all. Here are some of the best comedy movie endings ever put to film.
Spoiler Alert – Please assume there are major spoilers for every film listed.
Jon Favreau is a stupendous director, with facility and versatility, and is the creative paterfamilias of both the modern MCU and Star Wars extended franchises, having directed Iron Man and been the showrunner for The Mandalorian.
But Favreau’s most elegant work comes from his heart. Whether its Mike from Swingers, desperate and heartsick; or Carl from Chef, creatively and personally unfulfilled; there’s a sweet vulnerability established early on in both of these films. By the second act, you understand everything about what troubles these men. You’ve had a few laughs, likely at their expense. Now it’s time for them to go out and try. That’s difficult — they’re both so sad at the beginning, so trying is going to take a lot of work. A big, fat, joyful, teary, silly, deep, satisfying second act of trying.
Then his movies just end. They’re perfect that way. The third act in either of these films is generally under five minutes, depending on your interpretation. We don’t need any more. We got what we came for. Thanks, Jon. We love your movies.
14 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has the sort of wacky, here-we-go-again ending that would suggest a sequel, but from before the time when everything had to have a sequel.
In the movie, Michael Caine plays a smooth, aristocratic con artist who takes bunco man Steve Martin under his unlawful wing. Apprentice turns to adversary after they set a bet, declaring the winner to be the first to scam wealthy Janet Colgate (the late, great Glenne Headly), a fellow hotel guest, out of $50,000. The film ends with neither the winner: naive, clumsy Janet was actually a cover for famed Riviera hustler The Jackal. At the time, it was one of the first comedies to allow an actress to be the mastermind villain behind it all.
The button is the most satisfying: Janet scams the pair of men out of their own money, and declares herself the winner in a letter to the defeated duo. A few days later, she just shows up, in character, wealthy guppies swimming in tow behind her, already having put their latest scam together. She passes it off like a jazz soloist, and the gentlemen, with only the briefest hesitation, pick it up and play.
13 The 40-Year-Old Virgin
He loses it. That’s how it ends. He loses his virginity. It’s for love, and he’s learned a lot, and Catherine Keener has helped turn a frat house comedy into a touching, pseudo-realistic romance. Like Titanic and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, you can guess where The 40-Year-Old Virgin ends up just from the title.
Except that you can’t. Only seconds after his first (second) dalliance into the sexual, the world turns topsy turvy and the former virgin’s heart goes aflutter: it’s time for a musical number.
Steve Carrell takes the first verse, but soon, supporting cast join him on a mountain top, dressed in hippie sashes and Hendrix bandanas, giving a rendition of The 5th Dimension’s Age of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In. The choreography isn’t half bad, but what’s really admirable is the bravery to risk the audience being completely clueless, yet still laughing at the same time. They sell it. It just works.
12 Jojo Rabbit
The lessons we learn during childhood are the most memorable, because they bore the biggest holes. For the titular Jojo Rabbit, a young boy of ten and vehement Nazi youth, the lesson is that hate is a losing ideology. A praiseworthy enough precept, though the method of instruction is cruel. Only with the death of his mother, Rosie, is he shown that his doctrine is unrepresentative of what she stood for, or died for.
Her death is heartbreaking when the end of WWII, and the goals of her political resistance, were so close. All the more gut-wrenching is seeing a boy stop caring about politics and just feel sad for having lost his mother. Similarly, an orphaned teenager has lost her only adult benefactor. Taika Waititi’s hilarious movie may trick us into accepting the tragedy, but it also lets us laugh and cry about it in the way a child would.
In the end, just as a military Jeep with an American flag cruises by signaling the true end of the war, Jojo and his de facto sister figure, Elsa, finally see each other. “What do we do now?” he asks. Dance party. Cue the Bowie.
11 When Harry Met Sally
What makes When Harry Met Sally such a cherished film is its characters. Well-defined, with clear goals, and perfect friction. Harry is as abrasive to Sally as steel wool is to terry cloth, while Sally’s blind perkiness is repellant to Harry’s matter-of-fact self-loathing. Co-written by Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner, the repartee is winning and the chemistry undeniable. The movie is infinitely quotable, but there’s one moment at the end that brings Meg, and us, to tears:
“I came here tonight because when you realize that you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
It’s just a clever turn of phrase, but so meaningful. The characters have earned their love by merit of having tolerated with each other up until now. They know what they hate about each other, and to us, that makes their love vivid, like a reflection in the water once the ripples subside. It’s the romantic comedy for people who don’t even like romantic comedies, and it couldn’t have ended any other way.
10 The Birdcage
Legendary hams Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman tuck it in to a play a conservative Senator and his wife in The Birdcage. Seeing them as uptight WASPs forced into performing in a drag show is such satisfying comeuppance that you can’t help but laugh.
Firebrand, anti-gay Senator Keeley was ready to disavow the engagement of his daughter because her future in-laws are the gay owners of a drag club. To see him quite literally walk in the shoes of another (one can only assume that outfit comes with heels), uncomfortable, unsure of himself, even concerned with his own feminine vanity, is cathartic to us, him, the other characters on screen, to everyone.
Also, the timeless line whispered by an unknown extra during the wedding scene over the credits: “Bob Dole is gorgeous.” It’s a sharp movie that has you laughing through the credits, which helps explain why its source material, the French play/musical La Cage aux Folles, is still being translated and put on by theaters around the world, fifty years after its premiere.
9 The Big Lebowski
“The Dude abides.” That’s the last phrase spoken by Jeff Daniels in The Big Lebowski, which was immediately co-opted by Birkenstock-wearing literature professors at liberal arts colleges for years to come.
Truly, it’s Sam Elliott’s performance as The Stranger that caps this unique comedy noir crime caper-turned-Southern California half-a-docudrama fever dream of a film. Addressing the camera straight on, in his Elliottest of mustaches, he recaps the highlights, even throwing in his personal disappointment over the death of Donnie and his hopes for The Dude’s success in the upcoming league finals for bowling.
The most interesting aspect of this closing monologue is the one that’s left unsaid: The Stranger is God. He tips his hand, and hat, at his own omniscience with his knowledge of a “little Lebowski on the way.” But even an omniscient narrator would know that. It’s Elliott’s charming magnetism and easy demeanor that’s most convincing as a deity come to wander the world, examining the beauty of his own creation; like rereading an email you sent your ex. Now sip your sarsaparilla, friend, and take ‘er easy for the rest of us sinners.
8 Bullets Over Broadway
Another Dianne Wiest classic! She’s good. But it’s Chazz Palminteri as New York gangster Cheech who steals the ending of Bullets Over Broadway. He’s shot after it’s discovered he iced Boss Valenti’s girlfriend; not because they were two-timing him, as Valenti suspects, but for being a poor actress and ruining the play on which he and John Cusack’s David worked so hard. A mobster by profession but a playwright in his soul, Cheech’s last words in the film are a dictation to David as he holds his hand, murmured through the pain of a gunshot to the gut:
“The last line in the play… tell Sylvia Poston… to say she’s pregnant… it’ll be a great finish.”
He’s right, of course. Every one of his additions to David’s play have made it better. It’s a hit, and David has what he always wanted.
Perhaps not. Buoyed by Cheech’s honesty, he seeks out his former girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker) and wins her back from his literary rival (Rob Reiner). His secret? Confession. If Cheech the killer can admit to being an artist on his deathbed, then David can admit that he was never an artist, and only ever wanted to be a lover. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition for any artist to ask themselves: are you a romantic, or do you simply love romance?
7 The Grand Budapest Hotel
“I met a traveller from an antique land/Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert…”
These are the first three lines of the poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The literary device at work confuses the reader as to who is the narrator. The traveller[sic], or the poet? Who even is the poet, and who is the listener?
A similar device is used throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel. The viewer sees a young lady placing a tribute on the grave of a late author, played by Tom Wilkinson. Wilkinson becomes young, then he’s Jude Law. Law meets Zero, the proprietor of an old hotel, played by F. Murray Abraham. Zero tells Law about being a young Lobby Boy, and then he’s Tony Revolori. Very quickly, it’s unknowable who is really telling the story. The film closes in much the same way, the ending being passed from narrator to narrator, like a Russian nesting doll being put back together.
Wes Anderson utilizes this device to couch the tenderest moments of the film. Neither the death of Zero’s young wife (Saoirse Ronan), nor the death of his mentor (Ralph Fiennes) are seen on screen. They’re reported, almost in passing, by Zero the elder, Abraham’s leathery bass betraying a hollow, raw soul. His tragedy must be told in retrospect, or risk immaturity in its telling. Shelley’s poem ends similarly: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
6 Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The setup to the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail would almost convince you that someone had thought it up on purpose.
Only King Arthur and his loyal Sir Bedivere remain. They’re going to storm the castle with the conveniently available army which inexplicably appeared behind them. The call goes out. The rush begins — only to be interrupted by a modern-day squad car and paddy wagon. It’s the Bobbies (police), and they’ve been tracking the knights’ path since the brutal murder of A Famous Historian in Act II. The camera goes handheld, a bewildered Arthur and Bedivere are taken into custody. The camera itself gets knocked over, and the screen goes blank.
Mel Brooks, Deadpool, and even Shakespeare were also fans of the occasional fourth wall break. It’s the climax-shattering, sudden silliness overtaking the scene that makes it such a brash move. The intention is to shock the audience, and then laugh on your way out the door.
5 Some Like It Hot
The ending to Some Like It Hot played an interesting role in annulling the Hays Code, the restrictive and discriminatory censorship rules of the time.
Bucking the authority of Hays, the movie was released in 1959 to overwhelming popularity, immense profits, and a smorgasbord of awards. Within the decade, public perception had been changed and the Hays Code was repealed, in no small part due to crowds accepting films depicting alternative sexuality, such as Some Like It Hot.
And it’s the ending that sells it. Jack Lemmon, in drag as Daphne, telling the smitten Osgood, a goofy smile plastered from ear-to-ear, all the reasons why they can’t marry. Frustrated and on his last nerve, Daphne rips off his wig, revealing Jerry, his voice dropping from a falsetto to a baritone: “I’m a man.” Osgood, blasé and smiling, replies, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
Tootsie is another yet another classic, also built on the premise of a man in drag. More modern than Some Like It Hot, there’s a deeper emotional investment, buoyed by dramatic talents Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange.
Tootsie uses the Dorothy character’s drag less as a statement on alternative sexuality than as an anthropological observation on feminism. Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) conjures his feminine alter-ego, Dorothy, as a misguided acting experiment. By the end, he’s been enlightened after experiencing the pitfalls systemic to being a woman in a man’s business. The humor of the film comes from how others perceive Dorothy’s acumen in dealing with her male coworkers, and her seizure of their power. Dorothy won’t stand for being hit on, boxed in, or typecast — but not for the reasons they think.
When Michael tears off his wig, he’s revealing more than he thinks. After that moment, the characters must reconcile with an unfair truth: men and women wield unequal levels of power in the workplace. And the only thing it took was a woman speaking up for herself, which she only felt safe doing because she’s in the unique position of being a man.
Bill Murray’s immortal delivery of one of several best lines in the movie is a reminder of why we love him. On Michael’s live reveal: “That is one nutty hospital.”
3 Monty Python’s Life of Brian
No one could be blamed for having strong feelings about this film, either pro or con. A couple of the Pythons even went on BBC Four in 1979 and debated with members of the British clergy regarding the accusations of blasphemy in Life of Brian.
Whatever your feelings, the imagery at the end is blunt: a dozen or more crucified criminals atop a hill, rays of sun peering between their upright wooden crosses, whimsically singing Eric Idle’s original song, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. The bright, bouncy tune uplifts all the prisoners on the Golgothan death row, as they whistle along, childlike and chipper.
The real question here is, which ending? It’s rare that the actual final edit of a film gets to be so true to the spirit of its source material. Clue, the Hasbro game, centers around a mansion murder mystery in which players must deduce the perpetrator, scene of the crime, and murder weapon, which alternate with each play for 324 possible permutations. Clue, the film, only managed three. Still, that’s a lot of endings for a movie.
In 1982, film reels were shipped to theaters with one of three possible endings. As Roger Ebert pointed out, it involved so much mystery on the part of the studio that even they weren’t sure which ending was playing at which theater, in a hilarious depiction of life imitating art.
Later releases show all three endings, with title card declarations of “How It Might Have Happened,” “How About This?” and “Here’s What Really Happened.” The singular strategy is the perfect ending to an overall silly farce, impeccably acted by a gifted ensemble cast.
1 Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Absurdity is high on the list of metrics used to determine the best endings for this list, which is why Monty Python films appear twice. Yet, in terms of sheer wackiness, it’s challenging to find something as bonkers as Stanley Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
The dialogue itself doesn’t have a laugh in it. Nearly every character is deathly solemn and playing a straight dramatic role. It is, unfortunately, this closeness to reality that makes it so tragically funny. In the midst of the Cold War, only two years after the Cuban Missle Crisis, Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper is convinced the Soviets are irradiating his testicles and order a nuclear first strike. In other words, he’s gone batty, and it only gets worse.
The ending is a concurrent confluence of: a cowboy riding a warhead like a bucking bronco, an expert strategist former Nazi re-pledging his allegiance to the third reich upon being cured of his paraplegia, and the U.S. Cabinet debating underground breeding mines to help repopulate the country after the inevitable nuclear winter. The most troubling aspect of this ending is the razor-thin margin by which it appears in a cinematic farce, and not in the history books.