the art of ending things

8 Comedians Break Down Their Favorite Stand-up Closers Ever

Clockwise from top left: Maria Bamford, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Gary Gulman, and Joel Kim Booster. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by Netflix, Getty Images, Comedy Central

There’s no right way to close a stand-up comedy set. Some comedians go with what they believe is their strongest bit, while others go for their longest. Some opt for callbacks, while some save their dirtiest jokes for the end, knowing that if they told them too early on in the set, they wouldn’t be able to follow it with anything. Some want to challenge the audience, and others want their closer to serve as a “thank you” note to the crowd for bearing with them for however long they’ve been onstage.

“This is when the performer decides how you’re going to spend the rest of your evening, what your energy is going to be,” says comedian Guy Branum. “In the ’80s into the ’90s. I think comics particularly had extremely modular sets full of short jokes and put the strongest one last. Now, people think (or I hope more people think), What am I sending you away with? It’s such an earned moment.”

To understand more about the art of ending a stand-up set, Vulture spoke with eight comedians who chose their favorite set-ending bits and explained why they work so well. And while their choices varied greatly in form and style, they all agreed that there are no rules — just be funny. Here are their picks for best closers.

Maria Bamford, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome (2009)

Andy Kindler: I’ve been friends with Maria for a long, long time. I saw her grow and just become the greatest. I picked this bit because it really shows the whole scope of the problem with stand-up comedy clubs. There had already been an alternative comedy movement, but she’s really referring to the clubs in the ’90s when the comedy boom kind of imploded and all these clubs became awful. She never did an act like that just to please the crowd, but you could see the pain she’d be in if she ever had to. She channels a horrible female comic from that time period.

When I started in comedy, it was so closed and so rigid. A lot of the comedy was based on a woman who couldn’t really say what was going on. They would be relying on sex or a persona. Maria goes right to sex and then she goes, “I’m a husk. I can’t feel my hands!” then “Men are from Mars, women want their penis. I don’t feel good!” Then how she’d be back at the Comfort Inn, wounding herself. That voice: “Long sleeves, ladies, right?” That would be the way someone who hurt themselves would admit it to a mainstream stand-up comedy crowd. You’re getting her commenting on her life as she’s doing a hack act, having a breakdown onstage.

My style, well, I’m guilty of a lot of self-sabotage. When I’m onstage, I’m on a roll, I get nervous, and I’m afraid it’s going to end, so I end it myself: “I close weak! That’s my hook!” I used to do the show with Louie Anderson hosting back in the ’90s, and I was upset with the crowd because I thought they weren’t getting me. So, I ended up with, “Good night, you sons of bitches!” I didn’t know this, but I kind of got some street cred for it. Because that’s really kind of how comics can feel: Thanks a lot. You didn’t get me as much as I wanted you to, so go fuck yourself. All right, folks!

I never could do my act where I have the same closer all the time. But the thing that’s great about Maria’s: It’s such a good, natural ending to any show. I just love her.

Joel Kim Booster, Model Minority (2017)

Guy Branum: If you’re doing an hour of comedy, I should learn something about you. I should know who you are. So, one of my favorite closers is Joel Kim Booster’s joke “Pony.” It’s one of those jokes that he’s had since the first time I saw him, and it is everything that I want a closer to be. He tells this heartrending story of his parents diagnosing and pathologizing his homosexuality through his desire for a Crimp n’ Curl pony whose hair he’d get to style. It’s this moment where a person is telling you about one of the core rejections in their life, and then it ends on the brightest note. Basically, the punchline is his dad saying, “What’s he going to become? A horse hairstylist?” and Joel’s response is, “Is that a profession?” It’s such a beautiful moment of queer comedy, where the most powerful part isn’t the sadness. Comedy should be about the resilience of the human spirit, to me. It’s about, Here are all of these hard things, but it’s okay. Every time, after you listen to that joke, you know everything’s gonna be okay. That’s one of a comedian’s jobs.

Bill Burr, Let It Go (2010) and Dave Chappelle, The Bird Revelation (2017)

Ronny Chieng: Bill Burr’s pretty much a master of the craft, undisputed. What I like about Let It Go is it has a very classic closing structure of using a callback to a joke he makes earlier in the piece, about how he noticed that all these older men all have faces that look like an expression of pain and horror, constantly. The initial joke was so funny that the nonverbal act-out he does gets an applause break. He very well could’ve ended it on that, but he keeps going. That’s pretty impressive, when the joke is so strong and the concept is resonating so much that you don’t even need to use words anymore to invoke it. Stand-up, we measure it as an entire product and what you’re trying to say: This is a nonverbal act out, a callback, and the closer. Doing any of those things individually, just for the sake of doing it, doesn’t mean much. It’s not the goal, but the fact that this exists organically is proof of mastery.

Chappelle’s Bird Revelation is interesting as a case study. He’s another master of the art. I think Neal Brennan called Dave Chappelle the most naturally talented orator he’s ever seen. It comes across here because Chappelle is telling a very long story from a book by the pimp Iceberg Slim. He’s using it as a parable for show business. The audience trusts him so much that they’re willing to allow him to do a book report. It’s well-documented, Chappelle’s battle with show business, his creative struggle to maintain integrity, and it relates to how his race is viewed by American society. He doesn’t connect the dots for you, and that’s really cool. I think the best comedy is jokes where the audience makes the connections themselves. Chappelle is not only making you listen — though it’s so engaging and interesting — he’s also making you think about what he’s saying in a very profound way.

The bigger idea of closers is that they’re the difference between a good hour and a great hour of comedy. The closer connects to something you’ve been talking about in your routine. It’s not necessary — any joke can be a closer. You can close on something random, and great stand-up specials do it. So this is kind of like taking a step further. There are so many specials out there that I think that’s how you can differentiate yourself, by having a closer that connects. You’ve earned the audience’s trust through the rest of your routine, so they’re willing to go with you on this slightly more indulgent journey, but with a better payoff.

Sam Evans, Sweet Baby Boy (2020) and Sean Patton, Scuttlebutt (2019)

Shane Torres: I have OCD, but outside of that, Sean’s bit is fucking hilarious. There is absolutely all the blood from a stone you could possibly get out of it — that bit goes for 11 minutes about a very personal thing. It’s a spiderweb — it goes in 10,000 directions, and every direction has another direction coming off of it. I would have these same kinds of thoughts when I was young, so it’s very normalizing in a way, too. I mean, I wasn’t thumbing and uncorking my asshole like a wine bottle twice a day like Sean, but I definitely had weird anxieties as a kid. That feeling of dread for no apparent reason and then what you do to relieve it, it is a very, very relatable thing to a lot of people with a compulsive disorder. In the recording, it’s killing, and then at the end, it doesn’t get this big, huge laugh, which makes me laugh even more. You’re like, This whole thing had me on pins and needles the whole time, and then, Okay, well that’s how we’re doing this thing. I’m jealous of it, and for comics, that’s a sign that it’s an amazing bit.

Sam’s is much different. He’s not dirty as an act, but he was like, “This is a little gross, right?” I said, “I don’t know, man. Go up there and see what they think.” He super leaned into it — you can’t do a bit bordering on incest with your toe half in the pool — and it’s a little more organic because he calls it his closer. It’s fucking disgusting that his aunt asked him about talking about her tits, and he goes, “It’s not a hack premise. Your breasts have been somewhat of a comedic blind spot.” It’s just a very funny fucking joke about his experience, and it’s not trying to be gross, even though it’s gross.

The only intention of Sam’s bit is for it to be funny. A lot of people are closing on politics or tragedy and all that. That can work, and some of it’s really great. Sean’s is pretty personal in the OCD thing, even though it’s lunacy. I like that Sam’s is just very, very funny. In the past four and a half years, I’ve only just wanted to laugh some of the time, enjoy it, and not overthink it.

Adele Givens, Def Comedy Jam (1992)

Nicole Byer: My all-time favorite closer is Adele Givens’s Def Comedy Jam set. She does a pretty famous bit called “I’m such a fucking lady,” and then the closer is like, “I have big lips but I can’t fuck with dudes who don’t have big dicks, too. Because if I fuck around with a dude without a big dick, it’s like giving a tic-tac to a whale.” The way the audience reacts is truly magical. People stand up and run around. It is unexpected, and it’s so fucking funny. The whole special is like, “I’m such a fucking lady,” but she’s also using profanity. It’s this beautiful juxtaposition about What are women even supposed to be? What does it mean to be such a lady? Then she closes with that, and it’s perfect.

The closer doesn’t have to be your funniest joke top to bottom — your closer just has to have the funniest button. The funniest part of your set has to be like the last two seconds. Whether it’s a ten-minute set, a 15-minute set, or a 20-minute set, whatever, there are ebbs and flows, ups and downs, hills and valleys. But your closer? You have to end at the top of the fucking mountain. Because then it’s just like Yes! and you fucking drop the mic. If the last thing you say isn’t a huge hit, then why is that your closer? Sometimes people start with a solid opener, and you’re like, Oh, let’s tuck in. This is gonna be a real treat. But then they close, and you’re like, Huh. Okay, whatever. It’s like you didn’t come. You didn’t get fucking fully serviced. You did a bunch of foreplay, and nobody came.

Gary Gulman, The Great Depresh (2019)

Erica Rhodes: The closer is the last thing they’re taking away from you. And Gary, he definitely seemed more observational before. In one of his specials, he goes into a bit about cookies for, like, ever. He’s touchy about all the different cookies. It’s really funny, but it’s not so personal. He’s become more and more personal, and I connect to that. Some comics stay observational their whole careers, and if they’re really good writers, that’s fine. I enjoy that too. But I enjoy personal aspects because I feel more invested in their story. With Gary, he’s got both. He’s got the really well-crafted jokes, and then he has the stories. I think the best comedy is when only that person can tell that joke. That joke he has about the psych ward, where the guy’s like, “Are you Gary Gulman, or am I crazy?” You can’t make that up at all. You know that happened. Sometimes, his voice kind of quivers a little or something feels difficult to say. You feel like, Oh, this isn’t easy for him.

Ending on a sound is so interesting. Gary ends on this “tick, tick, tick, tick, tick,” which says so much because, yeah, that’s life in a nutshell. Do you know the 60 Minutes sound? Not a lot of sounds bring you back to your childhood, but I remember being a kid and listening along as my parents watched it. That feeling that life happens every single day, it’s just so funny. It captures how somebody who has battled depression would feel. It summed up his entire message in such a short, simple phrase: “Life, it’s every single day.” What more do you need to say?

Laurie Kilmartin, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad (2017)

DeAnne Smith: This whole album, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, is brilliant. It seems impossible: How could you make an entire album about losing your father, a completely tragic and heart-wrecking event? I love that it’s very specific, but also, everybody’s lost somebody, everybody knows what grieving is like, so it has the potential to appeal to anyone.

Then the closer wraps up the album perfectly. It’s like the ultimate closer in the way that the whole joke is literally about her father’s funeral — life’s closer. I counted at least four callbacks that she managed to get in there, completely naturally and effortlessly, these little bonuses you remember. When you listen to the whole album, you really recognize how masterful and well-crafted it is. At the same time that she’s talking about the process of grieving and what a big deal it is to lose a parent, she’s also got sexual bits in there. Even her talking about the animosity with her mom, she’s built that up through the album so by the time we get here, where she says there’s a 21-gun salute and that she wanted to push her mom in front of them like a firing squad, it’s like, Wow. It’s all of life wrapped up into one joke.

With the album and this closer, Laurie gives us permission to have all the feelings we have. It’s validating in the way that the best kind of comedy is. I love personal and confessional comedy, where the comedian says something that’s taboo or maybe not okay and everybody laughs because they’ve also felt that way. It’s brutal and so funny.

Stewart Lee, If You Prefer a Milder Comedian (2010)

Jackie Kashian: Stewart Lee is one of the greatest stand-up comics in the world. It’s him and Maria Bamford who are the best. Stewart has this technique of silence and repetition and silliness, and usually when he does a new hour, he publishes the transcript as a book with 4,000 annotations. There’s a conceit: This is art. Of course, you’ll want to know what I was thinking. Of course, you’ll want to know how I thought of it. His stand-up is like this sociopolitical experiment and especially the cider with the 100 percent pears, where you’re like, What on earth are you doing? 

And it is so long. You have to appreciate when someone’s closer is 20 minutes long. You’re like, Are you still talking? Oh, yeah. You are. I worked with him in Australia, and his closer was this thing about living in London and having a missionary come to his door. He answers the door and the missionary says, “Jesus is the answer. What is the question?” And then the bit has like three or four different very silly, obscure, smart, and all weird references, like, “Is the question, ‘What kind of sandals did hippies wear in the early ’70s?’” And they’re like, “No.” And he says, “Can I guess again?” He does, like, four of those, and some Australian dude, a guy couldn’t handle the tension, yells, “Get to it, mate! Finish the damn joke!” Stewart has that sort of celebration of silence, so he sat there, and then finally said, “Usually, I do four of these but for you, I think I’m gonna do six.” It was literally maddening and awesome. So, how long the closer is the guts of it as well. It’s the audacity and the ability. He’s testing himself and his audience. That’s hard to do.

8 Comedians Break Down Their Favorite Stand-up Closer Ever