A good comic knows to leave his best joke for the end of the show.
A few jokesters carried this principle to the extreme by being funniest just before their very last final curtain.
Take for example, the last words of French satirist Voltaire, who, when implored by a priest on his deathbed to renounce Satan reportedly replied, “Now, now, my good man. This is no time for making enemies.”
Oscar Wilde, witty to the end, sipped champagne as he left this world, quipping, “I am dying beyond my means.” (Some biographies report that his actual final words were, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.”)
Another funnyman who exited stage left in a tragi-comedic manner was Lou Costello. Costello, who died during this week in 1959, was the funny half of the comedy team Abbott and Costello, one of the most successful comic duos of the mid-twentieth century.
During 1943, Abbott and Costello used their immense popularity to help raise funds for the war effort in a grueling cross-country bond drive. During the trip, Costello caught rheumatic fever, which kept him from working for an entire year, and seriously damaged his heart.
Sixteen years later when he was dying from heart attacks brought on by the disease, he rose from his deathbed, drank down an ice cream soda, and said, “That was the best ice cream soda I ever tasted” … and then promptly dropped dead.
(This story may be apocryphal since reports at the time stated his last words were the more pedestrian “I think I’ll be more comfortable.”)
There are several examples of last words being unintentionally funny. My personal favorite is from the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War, when Union Gen. John Sedgwick was inspecting the enemy lines from atop his horse. His troops tried to get him to dismount and take cover since a sniper was known to be taking potshots from the Southern lines.
Sedgwick haughtily brushed off their concerns by proclaiming, “They couldn’t hit an elephant from that dis …”
Just as some comics were funny till the end, certain curmudgeons left life with a final fit of bile.
Humorless Karl Marx, who was annoyed by a housekeeper who was trying to record his last words, was reported to have yelled, “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”