Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Taking out laughs can make a comedy funnier

There’s an old theater expression: “Take out twenty minutes; run two years longer.” Most dramatic efforts would benefit by being twenty minutes shorter.

Movies, for sure.

Comedies in particular.

Sceen comedies should run about 90 minutes. Once you drift into two-hours a feature comedy becomes indulgent, bloated, and needlessly self-important. This is always my complaint with Judd Apatow movies. They’re always too long. Always. He knows this; even acknowledges so in his book. But he still insists on keeping his movies over two-hours. They are that difficult to cut? Uh… I could take at least twenty minutes out of every one of his films and still make it to Nate & Al’s for the Early Bird Special (assuming I don’t also have to chase kids off my lawn).

Here’s the truth: he could edit them too. Judd has a keen eye for comedy. The jokes in his movies work because he knows what’s funny and he knows how to construct humorous moments to get the most bang for his buck. He also knows story and story structure. But somewhere along the line he just falls so in love with everything that he can’t bear to part with it.

Yes, I’m sure the first cuts of his films are three-hours and he did a lot of trimming already, but as the other expression goes: “Sometimes you have to kill your babies.”

The comment I hear the most about TRAINWRECK is “really funny but too long.” It would be even FUNNIER if it weren’t too long.  That's absolutely how I felt.  I could have cut 45 minutes from that movie without missing a beat.  15 of those minutes would have come from the last half hour. 

And Judd isn’t the only offender. Most screen comedies have ten pratfalls too many. Meanwhile, INSIDE OUT runs 94 minutes and is the hit of the season. Pixar has figured it out. Why can’t others?

Audience viewing habits have changed. This could be due to emerging technology, new shorter forms of entertainment, or simple human evolution – our bladders apparently are getting smaller. But whatever the reason, we have little patience these days for filler, red herrings, sweeping panoramas, and more than six semen jokes in any one film.

Here’s the bottom line – for comedies or any genre, ask yourself this: Is the story big enough and strong enough that you need two hours (or more) to tell it? “Need” being the operative word here. The minute the moviegoer checks his watch the answer is “No.” Even taking out laughs can make a comedy funnier.

Now, in the spirit of fairness, I welcome all opposing views. If you feel movies are too short, that seven battle sequences are not enough, that diarrhea scenes must be played out in their entirety, that Adam Sandler doesn’t get enough screen time, that there are still one or two structures in Metropolis still left standing after a Superman altercation, that BOYHOOD should have been over a twenty year span, that there was too much still left unsaid in TRANSFORMERS then I want to hear from you.

I’d say more but… well, why not follow my own advice?

88 comments:

Bill Avena said...

AMY SHUMER FIRES COMEDY GUN AT OLD COOT, MISSES

Roger Owen Green said...

As it turns out, I totally agree with you about Trainwreck, specifically Apatow.

Jim S said...

To quote the late, great Roger Ebert, "no good movie is too long, no bad movie is too short."

But I get where you're coming from. Having said that, it depends on the movie. I just "Patton" again, after not having seen it for several years. Almost three hours. I loved it. It had me enthralled. Same with "Lawrence of Arabia." Joss Whedon cut out a lot from the latest Avengers movie. I would have shortened the battle scenes and put in more the people talking that he cut out.

The problem with modern technology is that it's expensive. I suspect "Inside Out" was short because every second of that movie was created by thousands of technicians. There's no riffing. There's no "we've got the shots we need for today, so why don't Bill and LeBron riff a little and we'll see what we can use." That's not expensive.

But when you spend, say, $5 million on a scene, it becomes much more difficult to cut it out. I also suspect it's harder to have a producer put his foot down with a successful director. Apatow, whatever his faults, has made some good and profitable movies. That gives him power. In the old days, even the Marx Brothers answered to Irving Thalberg, who had the final say.

Long story short, it depends, but you make a good point. Limits sharpen focus and cut off self-indulgence.

Peter said...

Completely agree with you, Ken. Another name I'd add as being guilty of this is Paul Feig. I've enjoyed his movies as director, Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, but all three suffer from being way too long, especially Bridesmaids and Spy. I don't know if it's a mindset of "more is more" or, as you say, they can't bear to cut out anything, but it makes for an exhausting viewing experience. I expect his Ghostbusters sequel/reboot/remake/spin-off whatever it is to be 2 and a half hours.

There are very few comedies that can justify a 110 minute running time, let alone 2 hours plus. Trading Places is just under 2 hours and I wouldn't cut a single frame. It earns every single scene. But Knocked Up, Spy, Bridesmaids and The Heat could all have done with being about 30 minutes shorter.

Airplane! is 88 minutes and 35 years after it was made is still funnier than most comedies made now and doesn't have an inch of fat on it. I never get tired of rewatching that.

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

Chris G said...

I don't mind longer movies in the theater but they can be deadly for home viewing. We got Boyhood from Netflix and sat on it for months because we just could not block out three hours to watch it - too long for a work night, and with a kid whose bedtime is closer to 9 than 8 weekends were pretty much out, too. But a 90 minute movie? You can start that at 9 and be in bed before 11.

Covarr said...

One movie that I felt wasn't long enough was THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Sure, at 97 minutes it was already coming in slightly longer than most Disney princess films, but it needed another 10-20 minutes of Tiana being a frog. In this time, her relationship with Naveen could've been grown and expanded upon. As it is, her feelings for him felt rather sudden and out of nowhere, like there was a point A and a point B in their relationship and they just jumped from one to the other with no emotional journey at all. This was really frustrating for me to watch.

If this would, in fact, make the movie too long, there's a whole bunch of fluff in the first act that can be cut. But the released film is definitely lopsided, with too much attention put into the wrong parts.

VP81955 said...

I recently completed my first screenplay (a romantic comedy), and had to gradually whittle it down from 110 pages to 104 and finally to 100. It wasn't easy; a few scenes I'd fallen in love with had to be removed because although they looked right on paper at first, the feel I sought for them simply didn't come off. (One was an intimate scene that I intended to be erotic and playful, but came out rather flat and really didn't advance the story.)

Moreover, I focus on emphasizing white space in my scripts -- it makes things easier for the reader, your first gatepost -- and I've instituted an unwritten rule that, with rare exceptions, all of my dialogue blocks go no longer than four lines. (Longer speeches or talk by one character can be broken up by one- or two-line scene or character descriptions.)

Soon, I will return to my second romantic comedy, which I temporarily set aside to focus on finishing the first; it's about one-quarter done, with an outline and story arc already in place. Once that's completed to my satisfaction and deemed reasonably tight, it's off to seek representation and contact producers, actors, etc. Keep your fingers crossed.

Ted Kilvington said...

I would argue this also applies to Season 4 of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (the Netflix season). There was no restriction on the length of episodes, some lasting over 35 minutes, with most of them feeling bloated and unfunny. They should have capped the episode length at 25 minutes max.

Rashad Khan said...

What's true about everything else in life is true as well for storytelling: less IS more.

Dan Ball said...

There are never too many nude scenes in a movie.

BACK TO THE FUTURE is a very lean movie. It's even a scifi adventure, but it flies by. (Honestly, I always thought it was only about 90m long, but it's actually 116.)

Another long movie that seems to fly by is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. I think once you settle into the rhythm of it (every shot is like a minute--that'll really bloat a runtime), then the story really flies by and keeps you entertained. I also agree that PATTON is another movie like this. Man, those are some great scores, too. I'm so excited that Ennio Morricone is scoring THE HATEFUL EIGHT. A new Williams STAR WARS score and a Morricone Spaghetti Western both by the holiday season. What have we done to deserve such a blessing!

Brian Phillips said...

Per Roger Ebert's point:
Christmas in July, 67 minutes. Great movie, no wasted scenes.
Men in Black, 98 minutes. Great movie, no wasted scenes.
King of Comedy, 109 minutes. Great movie, no wasted scenes.
Seven Samurai, 207 minutes. Great movie, no wasted scenes.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jim S.: Ebert was, of course, right.

There are cases of movies that got more boring as they got shorter - I believe ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was butchered for its first American release. I happened to see it in Europe, where it was a four-hour (with intermission) great experience. (A great frustration with the DVDs is they put the break in the wrong place!) And there are lots of other great movies that run long.

But look at TV: comedies are half-hours, dramas are hours. Seems to me that applies in film as well. Maybe in film comedies are 90 minutes and dramas are whatever's needed to tell the story? I wouldn't cut a minute of 2001.

One day I really want to see THE CLOCK.

wg

ed.j. said...

Every time I see a movie I think is too long (comedy or drama) I feel that it is a case of trying to tell too many stories. The phrase used above was 'does it advance the story?' If, no, then cut. But if you're trying to tell 3 stories then ... blerg.

I think this happens especially to comedies that try to add a serious / heartfelt / action line. Those need to slow things down and rather than change the pace to set up next wave of laughs and they take on a life of their own.
Compare Airplane to Apatow.

Of course, as Frasier said: "Yes, Niles, but if it's true that less is more then just think how much more more would be!?"

Ken who wrote that line? I used about 3 times a year; to my wife's ever decreasing hilarity.

ed

Paul Gottlieb said...

"The Awful Truth," "Bringing up Baby," and "It Happened One Night" are all well under two hours. So is "A Night at the Opera." For that matter, so are great suspense films like "Bad Day at Black Rock" and "The Asphalt Jungle." Maybe those old guys knew something!

John (not McCain) said...

Mostly I agree, but I don't think you can ever have too much semen.

Michael said...

The comparison I'll over is something said by one of Ken's and my heroes, Vin Scully, who felt there's no such thing as too long a baseball game--yes, but he also has said he hates a game with a lot of bases on balls. Even a baseball game can be too long.

Ebert was right about movies. I think of a line that Dick Cavett used about Oliver Hardy: that he had great precision of movement. No wasted activity. To invoke a film that is not a comedy, I loved Spielberg's "Lincoln," but he could have cut 15 minutes off of the end and made it much better.

Well, what Ken says of a film or TV show is true of a book. I write history books. Many of them have been too long. It isn't that less is more, but, as Mr. Clemens said, we do have to kill our darlings.

By the way, I read a story once about what should have been a great film and really wasn't, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," that the producers were told the script was too long and so they edited out stage directions? If so, that may explain a lot.

Anonymous said...

I was 12 when I saw "A Funny Thing Happened..." and thought it was perfect. But I was 12.

Pam, St. Louis

YEKIMI said...

No desire to see Trainwreck mainly because of the stunt casting of Lebron James. Bad enough that I live in the area he was born and grew up and have to have the local paper jam every single thing he does down our throats ["LeBron farted and they DO smell like roses!" "Exclusive pictures of LeBron getting his mail from his mailbox, check out all 3 pages of them!"]. No desire to see ANY film that has stunt casting of that type.

Nevin ":-)" said...

I think it depends on the movie. THE BLUES BROTHERS (133 minutes), IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (205 minutes) and THE GREAT RACE (160 minutes) are all well over two hours, and I just don't see how you'd cut them down to 90 minutes. Okay, I suppose you could cut out "The Sweetheart Tree" from The Great Race, but would you really cut any screen time away from Natalie Wood?

Aaron Hazouri said...

An older friend of mine shared with me a concept he called "economy of storytelling." You get in, tell your story, make your point, and get out. I'm a cartoonist and the comics industry could stand to get back to telling stories that don't drag on for months. But I think too many creatives confuse length with gravitas. Will this movie have more weight and be taken more seriously if it's three hours versus 90 minutes? No, not really. Dumbo is barely an hour and ranks as one of Disney's truly classic films. Tell your story, make your point, and get out!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ken - I've really appreciated (and read! and learned from!) the book recommendations you've posted for studying comedy. Do you have any book recommendations for studying story and story structure? Preferably nothing super dense, or at least including some lighter recommendations to offset the punishing tomes.
Thanks,
Stephanie

Wayne said...

Judd Apatow just wants to belong.

alkali said...

A lot more than 90 minutes is tough on a comedy: that's a long time for a viewer to keep up with that tone. If a film is an action-comedy or a real romantic comedy where there is substantial emphasis on another aspect of the story (not just a nominal love interest) that kind of film can work at a longer length. But no normal human can guffaw for two and a half hours.

cd1515 said...

I know you wrote about comedies but Ken but if we talk great movies, Shawshank is 2:22 and I never checked my watch.
looking back at it now, I can't imagine what to cut.

gottacook said...

"In the old days, even the Marx Brothers answered to Irving Thalberg, who had the final say." Maybe so, but Thalberg supervised only their first two MGM pictures and died midway through production of the second of those, A Day at the Races.

That's an amusing story about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, but my problem with that movie (although I too enjoyed it when I was 12) is that the majority of songs from the show were gone; a few more could have been left in without slowing things down - there's no apparent reason Forum couldn't have included as many songs as Lester's two Beatles movies.

In my opinion The Blues Brothers would be just as unfunny at half the length...

Oliver said...

Agreed. Few movies, of any genre, should be significantly longer than two hours, and most would benefit from being shorter and being trimmed to around 100 minutes. Studios seem reluctant to release short movies for some reason.

I suspect the relatively short running time is why I've taken to watching Disney and Pixar's films. They're a complete breeze to watch and don't outstay their welcome.

The worst example I can think of was the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel where it seemed to drag on forever with endless, repetitive, pointless and no-doubt hugely expensive action sequences. Cut the film down by at least 30 minutes and it would have been so much better.

Roger Owen Green said...

I will say that LeBron James played LeBron James very well.

Anonymous said...

Books on character development too.
Stephanie (again)

Bill Avena said...

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
EH

Boris Kutoff said...

Someone already cited "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," whose entire thematic reason for existing was "more." Here are some other terrific comedies with running times of 1:50 or over:

"Brazil": 2:22
"All About Eve": 2:18
"The Baker's Wife": 2:13
"Broadcast News": 2:13
"Some Like It Hot": 2:12
"Being There": 2:10
"The Great Dictator": 2:06
"Midnight Run": 2:06
"The Apartment": 2:05
"Slap Shot": 2:03
"Shakespeare in Love": 2:03
"Stalag 17": 2:00
"Tootsie": 1:59
"Arsenic and Old Lace": 1:58
"The Big Lebowski": 1:57
"Arthur" (the Simmons-free one): 1:57
"Back to the Future": 1:56
"The Incredibles": 1:56
"M*A*S*H": 1:56
"Monty Python's The Meaning of Life": 1:56
"The Bad News Bears" (the Thornton-free one): 1:53
"Being John Malkovich": 1:52
"Defending Your Life": 1:52
"The Philadelphia Story": 1:52
"A Day at the Races": 1:51
"Ratatouille": 1:51
"Ball of Fire": 1:51
"The Sunshine Boys": 1:51
"Dinner at Eight": 1:51
"Dave": 1:50
"Ninotchka": 1:50
"American Graffiti": 1:50
"Diner": 1:50

I'm not seeing waves and waves of indulgent, cuttable fat on this list.

The reason there are more good long dramas than good long comedies isn't because comedies need to be 90 minutes. It's simply because comedy is harder to make than drama, and harder to sustain.

Peter said...

Off-topic but I'm giddy with excitement at the news that Steven Spielberg has met with Gene Wilder with the aim of getting him to come out of retirement for a movie. That would be awesome. Wilder is a legend and by all accounts a great guy. It would be wonderful to see him on the big screen again in something directed by Spielberg.

Cat said...

I'm starting to actually get pissed off at Judd Apatow for making his movies too long. I saw Trainwreck going in knowing it would be long, and told my husband, who was gracious enough to come with me. Two of my favorite comedies of recent years are The Hangover and Horrible Bosses. I have no idea how long either are, but the fact is that they don't SEEM too long. Both are well-edited, brisk, funny, with a good pace. Judd's films have no pacing, therefore they drag. Directors, stop making comedies that drag!

John Hammes said...

"Taking out laughs can make a comedy funnier" .

1986's cinematic experience "The Jet Benny Show" certainly took that theory to heart...

It only ran 1:17.

Stephen Robinson said...

I appreciate Boris's opinion, but he does touch upon something I see come up in writing classes -- people will hear a rule and point to an immediate exception to the rule. This is problematic not just because all rules have exceptions but because some of these exceptions actually *prove* the rule. In other words, more often than not, if you think a successful work has broken a rule, you'll find that it actually *hasn't*.

With the examples Boris gives, many of them aren't technically comedies: ALL ABOUT EVE, PHILADELPHIA STORY, M*A*SH*, BEING JOHN MALVOVICH, THE APARTMENT, BACK TO THE FUTURE, even SOME LIKE IT HOT are humorous (extremely so in most cases) dramas. Dramas tend to have higher stakes (emotional and even life and death) that warrant an extended length to adequately resolve, but not always. The pace is also very different.

The stakes of most Apatow films appear limited, and the depth of the characters tend to warrant a quicker pace. That's my opinion. THIS IS 40, for example, is not just longer than ANNIE HALL, which had limited stakes as well, but it's longer than HANNAH AND HER SISTERS and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS -- both of which had life and death stakes.

I'd also argue that the most important part of writing (and directing in film) is *editing.* How much can you remove without sacrificing plot and character? I often tell beginning writers that their biggest "enemy" will not be a poorly written scene but a well-written one that serves no purpose. That is the hardest for them to realize needs to go.

Stephen Robinson said...

Oh, and I just saw Cat's post, and I agree: A film that *feels* too long is definitely a problem. "Slow in places" always causes me to go back and re-edit. Something is wrong.

And no one wants to go to a movie -- especially a comedy -- and feel like they have to "eat their vegetables."

gottacook said...

I've only seen long segments of Apatow movies on cable TV, sufficient to cause me to avoid seeing any of them whole. One scene from Funny People featured a sing-along of "Real Love," one of the two "new Beatles songs" that Paul et al. cobbled together in the mid-'90s for the Beatles Anthology TV series. Hence (to quote our host), one aspect of something "indulgent, bloated, and needlessly self-important" served as an element of another.

Diane D. said...

VP81955
Thanks for the update on your screenplays! You hadn't mentioned them for a while and I was wondering. I'm sure lots of people are keeping their fingers crossed for you.
.
I went to your Carole Lombard site--that contract is fascinating to read, especially knowing how unusual it was for the day. What a shame she died so young!

Boris Kutoff
You reminded me of a lot of wonderful old movies that I would love to see again! I'll have to see how many are available in some form.

chuckcd said...

That's why there is a "director's cut".

Jason said...

Okay, this is the first time I've ever heard anybody anywhere argue that SOME LIKE IT HOT is a "humorous drama" rather than a comedy, an argument I cannot in any way, shape, form or fashion agree with. If SOME LIKE IT HOT isn't a comedy, then I've never seen a comedy.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Re Carole Lombard: I remember Diana Rigg telling Dick Cavett in an interview that she'd love to have done the kind of work Lombard did - a "very light, clever, comedienne", Rigg called her, and mourned a little the passing of the "shimmering women" that had been superseded by a preference for realism.

wg

Peter said...

In what parallel universe is Back to the Future a drama? It's a sci-fi comedy and full of laughs. Part II is more of an action adventure, and Part III returns to the comedy, but none of them could be called dramas.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Orson Welles said he always kept his movies under two hours because he had a bad back and couldn't sit longer than that. Also, directors had to be more efficient during World War II because celluloid was rationed. Even B movies from that time hold up better than some contemporary stuff.

Dave said...

Totally unrelated to today's post (which I wholeheartedly agree with), but I figured you'd enjoy appreciate today's "Indexed" Ken: http://thisisindexed.com/2015/08/total-divas/

Donald Benson said...

The Great Race: I'd lose a lot of the smirky stuff in the snowstorm and the inexplicable Russian scene (What IS Natalie Wood saying to the crowd?). Maybe replace it all with a short scene back in NY where the race sponsors report that the racers have crossed Asia and have reached Europe, with a few insert gags or even newspaper stills. Also, shorten the pie fight.

I will confess a weak spot for that film; ironically a lot of the best stuff is small scale (Jack Lemmon randomly snarling "I hate you" to a puppy in mid-scene). And even now the pre-CGI ending is a jawdropper: What looks like hundreds of extras in period costume under the real Eiffel Tower.

Donald Benson said...

The big offenders on length were the Harry Potter films. On a few of them I made the mistake of finishing my soda early on, so the consequences kicked in during the inevitably complicated finale. I'm sitting there, close to shouting "Just use a damn spell and get on with it!"

Worst was the one where Harry was fighting scary flying things while old Dumbledore had to drink an entire punchbowl of water for some reason. "Can't...drink...another...drop...but...must..." Never have I felt such visceral empathy for a film character.

Dixon Steele said...

S. Robinson,

I too will chime in and call Bullshit on your claim that SOME LIKE TI HOT and BACK TO THE FUTURE are really dramas.

You may have gone to one too many Film Theory classes I'm afraid...

Jeff Maxwell said...

Funny is so funny. In an attempt to fund their sketch-comedy film, The Kentucky Fried Movie, The Zucker brothers (the writers) and John Landis (the director) were able to find enough money to shoot two of their funniest ten-minute sketches. They then convinced a theater owner to screen them before its normally scheduled film. The audience whooped, hollered, stomped their feet and convulsed with laughter. The immediate reaction was positive enough to attract funding for the rest of the movie.

The funny part is that the very sketches that brought gales of laughter in the screening became the least amusing parts when integrated into the completed film. I saw the screening and witnessed the hilarity. I saw the movie many times (because I was in it) and was very surprised by the lack of laughs for those segments. It was weird.

Wonder if cutting them would have made the movie funnier? Or, for some, funny at all.

Pat Reeder said...

To Stephen Robinson:

I saw "This Is 40" on cable, and I seem to recall it being longer than "Annie Hall," "Hannah And Her Sisters" and "Crimes And Misdemeanors" put together.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Pat Reeder: but not nearly as long as TITANIC. Oh, my god, that movie was dull. (I was forced to see it by two 15yo house guests.)

wg

D. McEwan said...

"Stephen Robinson said...
With the examples Boris gives, many of them aren't technically comedies: ALL ABOUT EVE, PHILADELPHIA STORY, M*A*SH*, BEING JOHN MALVOVICH, THE APARTMENT, BACK TO THE FUTURE, even SOME LIKE IT HOT are humorous (extremely so in most cases) dramas.
"

Well, for starters, Some Like it Hot IS a comedy, specifically, it's first-rate example of a long-established genre, the Transvestite Farce, no different than Charley's Aunt or Twelfth Night. The Philadelphia Story, M*A*S*H and Back to the Future are also comedies. All About Eve is generally considered a comedy, but I suppose it could be considered a "Dramedy." Being John Malcovish is not a comedy, though there is much comedy in it, and The Apartment is certainly a Dramedy.

A couple weeks ago my brother handed me a script a friend of his had written who wanted me to read it for a "Professional opinion." It was a script for a Marx Brothers play/movie, so right off it's pointless. (Write for living performers.) It was 240 pages. All I read was that last page number. "This is a four-hour play," I said, "Bring it back when it's one-third this length." My brother said: "Well, he knows it's a bit too long [A BIT?], but he thinks the jokes are all too good to cut." And "You must kill your babies" was exactly what I said to him. A couple days later I was present when my brother delivered another promised script by a different friend to a working film director of our acquaintance. This script was 180 pages. I'd told my brother what would happen, and it played out just as I said. The director looked at the last page's number, and said "This is way too long. I won't even read it until it's half this length."

Anthony said...

Friday Question - Yesterday's 'Now I Know' email newsletter talked about Jay Winsten bringing the "designated driver" concept to the US and how he worked with tv executives and "convinced many prominent TV shows of the era -- Cheers, the Cosby Show, L.A. Law, and Roseanne are mentioned in various press reports -- to make a positive, story-relevant reference to the designated driver program in various episodes."

How did you feel having to write certain things in? Were there other times you were told to deal with particular issues and how does it change the writing process?

Gary Benz said...

Ken, as I recall Woody Allen was of the exact same opinion. Comedies should be 90 minutes at most. You're both right. There's nothing worse than a comedy that goes on too long. Editing is an underappreciated art in Hollywood. I saw Ricky and the Flash the other night and while there was much I liked, there was much I didn't and I left thinking that the editing is what failed that movie the most.

SharoneRosen said...

this was always my complaint about Saturday Night Live. Sketches have funny concepts, funny characters, funny set ups... they're funny, and then, they're tedious. They never knew when to grab a punchline and be done. And because of that, I haven't watched SNL in years. Not movies, I know, but still...

And Boris Kutoff's great list back in the comments- those are all amazing movies. And every one of them, including IT's a MADX4 WORLD could lose 10-15 minutes.

But whaddo I know? They only things I've ever written for air were in the :30 & :60 second formats... but they crackled! ;)

Stephen Robinson said...

D. McEwan: Well, for starters, Some Like it Hot IS a comedy, specifically, it's first-rate example of a long-established genre, the Transvestite Farce, no different than Charley's Aunt or Twelfth Night. The Philadelphia Story, M*A*S*H and Back to the Future are also comedies. All About Eve is generally considered a comedy, but I suppose it could be considered a "Dramedy." Being John Malcovish is not a comedy, though there is much comedy in it, and The Apartment is certainly a Dramedy.

SER: I agree with your points. I was probably not explaining myself well. I think, for me, what Wilder does with SOME LIKE IT HOT that pushes it past mere farce is make us care about the characters and what's at stake. I also think there's depth to the romance between Curtis and Monroe. The same film could have been made by Mel Brooks in the 1970s and been hilarious (perhaps even more laugh out loud funny) but would not have had the same emotional heft. That's what I think is different about Philadelphia Story and M*A*S*H. The former for example has scenes that aren't necessarily funny but that give us a glimpse into Hepburn's character. That's the sort of thing that would be dropped from, say, ZOOLANDER or AUSTIN POWERS. ZOOLANDER also features the death of the lead's friends but it isn't meant to have the same emotional impact as Marty seeing Doc shot by Libyans. Also, the situations Marty McFly finds himself in certainly are funny but when I watch the film I'm very much invested in him as a person and in seeing him escape his father's fate (and even change his father's fate). BTTF moves me more than a lot of so-called dramas released in the 1980s (personal bias, but I never got THE BREAKFAST CLUB).


***

A couple weeks ago my brother handed me a script a friend of his had written who wanted me to read it for a "Professional opinion." It was a script for a Marx Brothers play/movie, so right off it's pointless. (Write for living performers.) It was 240 pages. All I read was that last page number. "This is a four-hour play," I said, "Bring it back when it's one-third this length." My brother said: "Well, he knows it's a bit too long [A BIT?], but he thinks the jokes are all too good to cut." And "You must kill your babies" was exactly what I said to him.

***

SER: I had a similar issue with a lot of beginning writers. One fellow claimed the novel he was working on would be 700 pages. I asked him why. He said that it was EPIC (it's a story about college students). I said that length doesn't necessarily automatically make something an EPIC (THE GREAT GATSBY is 182 pages, after all).

Albert Giesbrecht said...

My mother read a novel recently that was over 500 pages; when I entered the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest, my manuscript would run under 100 pages. I told my story and that's all there is.

Diane D. said...

Yekimi
I was disappointed in Trainwreck but I have to say I thought Lebron James was hilarious. I was surprised because I assumed it was stunt casting even though I didn't know who he was. (It was obvious he was a basketball player.) Is that a good reason not to go see a movie? The rest of your comment was very funny, however.

Alan C said...

Funny that Gary Benz should mention Woody Allen. I set a personal record for checking my watch during VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. Hated that movie. I know nothing about editing movies, but watching TRAINWRECK (which I enjoyed) I did think it could be tightened up. I'm curious what Ken or other commenters with some expertise in this field would cut.

Diane D. said...

Surely the length of a novel cannot be spoken of in the same way as the length of a movie? It may be true that a comedy (movie) should be no more than 90 minutes, or a drama more than 2 hours, but you can never say a novel should be no longer than 200 (or any number) of pages. Many of the greatest novels ever written are enormous and you're still sorry to see them end (Middlemarch).

Brian Fies said...

Diane D., I think appropriate novel length depends some on genre. Fantasy readers are used to reading 1100-page multi-volume epics. But I had a friend who wrote a detective novel and sent it to some agents who, to a person, told him it'd never sell anywhere unless it were half as long. Evidently, no detective story in the history of the form has ever exceeded X pages (I don't remember the number, but say 200). He cut out every other word and it got published. I suspect the same is true for screenplays: you MIGHT be the one-in-a-million genius who can write a three-hour comedy, but you'll never get anyone to look at it.

James Van Hise said...

I found Trainwreck wearying. Amy Shumer seemed determined to prevent anyone other than her from having any funny lines, which makes it tough because her character is so obnoxious. Bill Hader is one of my favorite actors and he isn't introduced until 15 minutes into the film! None of his scenes with Lebron James work, it was just stunt casting. Bill Hader's character is reactive instead of proactive. The magazine she works for (and thankfully is fired from after a rather unpleasant scene with a 16 year old boy) is so repulsive that even when I was watching it I thought, "If they ever have a revolution in that world, everyone at that magazine would be the first ones lined up against a wall and shot." I figured that I walked out about ten minutes before it ended because I was so bored with it all.

mmryan314 said...

I`m on agreement with James Van Hide. I left the movie ( not early though ) wondering why I didn`t like it as much as others liked it. I finally decided that there were over the top scenes that bordered on porn. I like raunchy humor a lot - I loved The Heat - I`m not a porn fan.

Anthony said...

SharoneRosen: My sketch writing teacher last year claimed that a former SNL writer told him that the writers are well aware about the common complaint that so many sketches go on too long, but it's a necessary evil because the budget only allows for so many sketches (backgrounds, costumes, props, etc.) to be produced each week. This explanation doesn't really hold water for me--fully-developed sketches are performed at dress rehearsal and cut right before the show goes on air--but it seems like that's their mentality.

Boris Kutoff said...

The demarcation line between comedy, "dramedy" and drama may be shifty and opaque, but if a movie has steady laughs, it's not NOT a comedy.

AFI's "100 Laughs" list isn't the be-all and end-all, but let's take a look:

#1-- Some Like It Hot (main characters in constant fear of being murdered)
#2-- Tootsie (main character unable to find work)
#3-- Dr Strangelove (ka-boom!)
#4-- Annie Hall (some existential angst; the universe is expanding and that's the end of everything)
#5-- Duck Soup (ends with a war)
#6-- Blazing Saddles (racism)
#7-- M*A*S*H (saturated with blood and pointlessness)
#8-- It Happened One Night
#9-- The Graduate (generational treachery and emotional drifting)
#10-- Airplane!
#11-- The Producers (Hitler)

More than half of those films are toting some heavy baggage. And so on down the list, from "Being There" to "Raising Arizona" to "Modern Times" to "Sullivan's Travels" to "My Man Godfrey" to "To Be Or Not To Be" to "Diner" to "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" to "Arthur" to "Broadcast News" to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" to "Fargo" to "Bull Durham." The history of great movie comedies abounds with personal stakes, serious subjects, quiet moments, and characters you come to care about. And of course the AFI list includes fluffy trifles that are also wonderful, like "Ghostbusters" or "Horse Feathers." But let's not make the same emphatic aesthetic assumption that the Academy Awards has made since forever.

"Nothing Sacred" got its job done in 1:17, while "The Great Dictator" required another hour of our time. Which of the two did it "wrong"?

Pat Reeder said...

To Wendy M. Grossman:

It's been a while since I suffered through "This Is 40," but are you absolutely certain it wasn't longer than "Titanic"? It sure felt like it to me. After spending so much time with those incredibly annoying, self-involved characters, I was really hoping it would end the same way.

I would've guessed that "This Is 40" is what viewers said at the end if they'd started watching it when they were 30.

slummingitforthelord said...

I love Preston Sturges, and he made several brilliant comedies, Sullivan's Travels is not a comedy though. It's an excellent movie, though not a comedy.

VP81955 said...

Boris, you mentioned three of Carole's "big four." Had you found a way to include "Twentieth Century," you'd have scored the grand slam.

I should note that the recently completed romantic comedy I've written includes a scene of two or three pages featuring a celebrity cameo; it's done as a gag and works within the context of the film, so it's not necessarily stunt casting because you see said celeb in an entirely different (but good-natured and funny) light. (Describing what it's about would give the joke away.) If the celebrity in question says no (which I hope wouldn't happen, because this person is known for having an excellent sense of humor), we can either substitute another celeb or create an entirely different character to serve the needed purpose for this part of the story.

become reviews said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ODJennings said...

Jim S said...
when you spend, say, $5 million on a scene, it becomes much more difficult to cut it out.


Almost every movie would be better if its special effects budget was at least 25% less. CGI effects take on a life of their own, and just because one giant battle scene is cool, that doesn't mean a second one makes the movie twice as good.

Someone mentioned Patton, but when you think about it there's only one real battle scene, and even that's only a couple minutes of screen time. Can you imagine Patton today? We would need battle after battle with CGI tanks exploding non-stop or the film would never be made. (Of course Patton and Omar Bradley would need to be younger, handsomer, and probably shirtless for a good portion of the movie too, but that's another issue.)

CGI, or any new technology, becomes a substitute for good story telling. It's no different that when television shows switched to color. The early Gunsmokes had great scripts even though Dodge City was clearly a soundstage, and the Long Branch was about half painted canvas backdrops.

Then color comes along, and all of a sudden instead of telling a story they're out on location, and Marshall Dillion is slowly riding across the prairie with a long tracking shot showing off the beautiful scenery. It becomes a different show, and I don't think a better one.

If you go back and look almost every show suffered a drop in quality when they switched to color. Even comedies like Beverly Hillbillies or Bewitched were tighter and better written in the B&W episodes.

The Weenie King said...

This is "Sullivan's Travels," not being a comedy:

[Screening room. A dramatic film clip is being viewed by the head brass of a film studio.]
FILM DIRECTOR SULLIVAN: "You SEE? You see the symbolism of it? Capital and labor destroy each other. It teaches a lesson, a moral lesson. It has social significance."
STUDIO CHIEF #1: "Who wants to see that kind of stuff?"
STUDIO CHIEF #2: "It gives me the creeps."
SULLIVAN: "Tell him how long it played at the Music Hall."
STUDIO CHIEF #2: "It was held over a fifth week."
STUDIO CHIEF #1: "Who goes to the Music Hall? Communists!"
SULLIVAN: "This picture is an answer to Communists! It shows we're awake, and not dunking our heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches! I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man."
STUDIO CHIEF #1: "But with a little sex."
SULLIVAN: 'I want this picture to be a document. I wanna hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity."
STUDIO CHIEF #1: "But with a little sex in it."
SULLIVAN (resigned): "With a little sex in it."
STUDIO CHIEF #2: "How about a nice musical?"
SULLIVAN: "How can you talk about musicals at a time like this, with the world committing suicide, with corpses piling up in the street, with grim death gargling at you from every corner, with people slaughtered like sheep!"
STUDIO CHIEF #2: "Maybe they'd like to forget that."
SULLIVAN: "Then why'd they hold this one over for a fifth week at the Music Hall? For the ushers?"
STUDIO CHIEF #2: "It died in Pittsburgh."
STUDIO CHIEF #1: "Like a dog!"
SULLIVAN: "What do they know in Pittsburgh?"
SYUDIO CHIEF #1: "They know what they like."
SULLIVAN: "If they knew what they liked, they wouldn't live in Pittsburgh!"

thirteen said...

I think part of this has to do with what the studios think moviegoers want. They think someone who pays $10 or $12 to see a movie wants a long movie, and that if the moviegoer doesn't get one, he or she feels cheated.

I remember going to see the first Speed film. They save the people on the bus and it's over -- except, no, it's not. They turned it into a save-the-train movie. They added two reels for no damn reason other than to lengthen the film.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Pat Reeder: TBH, I never saw THIS IS 40, so I can't *really* tell. But let me put it this way: halfway through TITANIC *I went to the bathroom*. I am the kind of movie-goer who does not drink or eat during movies, sits in the front so the people who do are not between me and the movie, who sits through all of the credits to hear the music finish, see who was the 2nd grip's assistant, and read the music credits. The kind who loved Roger Ebert's film festival because of the "perfect audience" he wrote about on his blog.

I even take notes if the movie is something I have to write about (such as GOING CLEAR, most recently).

I went to the bathroom mid-TITANIC. There I found another escapee. We commiserated, briefly. I said, "That damn boat is sinking in *real time*." I forgot what she said.

Even with that few minutes' break it seemed so, so long.

wg

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken: In case you haven't noticed the "become reviews" comment is spam. Best removed to ensure no one clicks on the URL.

wg

Johnny Walker said...

A great example of this is THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN -- the theatrical version is funny and sweet, whereas the longer cut (previous the ONLY version available on home video) drowns the emotional arc in unnecessarily extra "funny" scenes. It totally destroys the movie in the process.

VP81955 said...

A Friday question, if it's not too late, and based on an earlier post I made in this thread: As I noted, in my recently completed romantic comedy screenplay, I've included a brief cameo scene for a particular celebrity. (I won't disclose said celeb's name, though I will say it's someone Ken knows.) The scene is part of the story so it's not entirely "stunt casting," and paints the celeb -- known for a good sense of humor (that really narrows down the field, doesn't it, Ken?) -- and both is consistent with the celeb's personality and not at all mean-spirited.

My question is, should I contact the manager of the celeb before proceeding further with this? If the celebrity likes the idea, it could be a good selling point for the screenplay, although the person obviously would be under no obligation to follow through (and I would emphasize as such to producers and such). If the celeb doesn't approve, I either can substitute another celeb or change the character entirely while retaining the particular gag. Your advice, Ken?

Otto said...

Dear Ken:
I agree with 99% of what you said. In fact, I've been saying the same things to my kids for years now. It seems to me that more and more modern filmmakers "fall in love" with their own work, their own voice to the detriment of the final product. While that tendency seems to be increasing as the years go by I don't think the idea that "a shorter movie = better movie" is a new one. I think that opinion has ALWAYS been true. I remember reading a story years ago about screenwriter/director Garson Kanin coming upon Adolph Zukor (Paramount's Chief) the morning after a big film premiere and Kanin asked, "Mr. Zukor, how did you like the film last night?" Zukor replied, "I would have liked it even more if it was an hour shorter," or something to that effect. Zukor went on to suggest to Kanin that all movies can be improved by being shortened. Now that might be a hyperbolic suggestion but the feeling/sentiment behind the idea is solid. As someone who is currently making their living (such as it is) as a writer, I know full well how difficult it is to edit material but I also know that just about everything I've ever written was improved by taking out material that, ultimately, was not necessary. The problem isn't primarily with the shortening attention span of the audience but the ego of the filmmakers.
By the way, I LOVE your blog so you can ALWAYS write more as far as I'm concerned. Ha! Ha! Ha!

Peter said...

VP81955

This is just my two cents on the subject and Ken of course can correct me if I'm wrong but from what I understand there is no point putting a specific celebrity in a script for the reason that at this stage it's a spec script without anyone attached as producer or star or director. There are simply too many variables that have to fall into place before the issue of a celebrity cameo can even be discussed. The star hired for the lead role may want to put one of his buddies in the movie. The director may decide there's no need for a celebrity cameo. And so on. It's the same reason writers are advised not to put specific songs into a script because ultimately that comes down to the director and which songs the studio is prepared to pay for the right to use.

I speak from experience that approaching a manager or agent in the hope that a particular actor will like a script as a way to boost its chances of getting produced is a complete non-starter. I tried that on two occasions and both times had the same response: their client only has time to read scripts that are already fully financed and have producers/director on board. It's understandable. They just don't have the time to read spec scripts from unproduced writers who don't have representation. It sucks, I know. I'm in the same boat in terms of trying to get my foot in the door.

If you want a suggestion, I've written a spec that has a scene for a cameo and I just put STAR CAMEO as the character name because I know that if it ever gets produced, the decision on who's cast will have nothing to do with me.

Hope this helps and good luck!

Lee Goldberg said...

Jim S said...
when you spend, say, $5 million on a scene, it becomes much more difficult to cut it out.

It's been done...and usually to the betterment of the film.They cut a huge action finale from THE SAINT and an action-packed, location-packed, third of WORLD WAR Z, snippets of which showed up in a montage at the end.

Steve Bailey said...

I still remember 1997's FOR RICHER OR POORER, with Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley as a rich couple on the lam from the IRS who hide out in an Amish community. Would you believe that a sitcom-like story like that would run for two hours? Well, it did, and as they say, that's two hours of my life that I'll never get back.

slummingitforthelord said...

@theWeenieKing I never denied that S.T. was had humor. I've always found Sullivan's Travels to be the misclassified as a comedy. Comedy-drama, perhaps. But comedy. No. To focus on the list of films upon which Sturges' reputation primarily rests,


The Great McGinty (1940)
Christmas in July (1940)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (filmed 1942, released 1944)
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)


McGinty, Christmas, Eve, Miracle and Hero have serious points to make about various aspects of American culture, and identity. they are all definitely comedies. And per your name, The Palm Beach Story is out and out nonsense (delightfully so.) But Sullivans travels, despite it's humor. Despite it's happy ending, can not to me, be classified as a "comedy"

Tom said...

Apatow may not know brevity, but that's probably not a lack of vision as much as an overblown sense of importance and an attitude that his sh*t doesn't stink. I also agree with the poster who mentioned loving the first Hangover movie. That one did have good pacing, and it was before Todd Phillips decided that Zach Galifianakis was the only funny one. Like Klinger in MASH, he can be funny but should be used sparingly.

D. McEwan said...

"Stephen Robinson said...
The same film could have been made by Mel Brooks in the 1970s and been hilarious (perhaps even more laugh out loud funny) but would not have had the same emotional heft."


The thought of what Mel Brooks would do to some Like It Hot chills my blood. Having emotional weight and heft in your characters doesn't make a film not-a-comedy. It makes it a better comedy. There's depth and weight in many of Shakespeare's comedies also, but that doesn't make Twelfth Night into a drama. Hell, there's depth and weight in Frasier.

I'm sorry, but "Shorter is better" does NOT apply to novels. The Lord of the Rings would not be "Better" if it were 300 pages instead of 1090 pages. Charles Dickens was not over-writing when he routinely turned out novels that ran to 900 pages. I am, at present reading Game of Thrones. It's 807 pages. It's not overlong. In fact, I prefer Stephen King's uncut, over-1000 pages edition of The Stand to the original 800-page version. This is what novels are for, to tell stories of complexity and depth. Nothing wrong with a short novel either. One of my novels is 215 pages, because that was the right length for that particular story.

I'm not saying there's no such thing as a novel that is too long or over-written. Most of Anne Rice's later books disprove that, just that mere length is not a flaw in a novel. Would you want to cut Don Quixote down to 150 pages? I hope not. If you did, I wouldn't read it. (Growing up, my dad used to get those "Reader's Digest Condensed Novels." I wouldn't touch them, even at 15 years old. Give me the unabridged versions or none at all.)

Al Cowens said...

But Sullivan's Travels, despite its humor, despite its happy ending, can not to me, be classified as a "comedy"


Others disagree, including Criterion, Rotten Tomatoes, TCM, Filmsite.org, the AFI, imdb.com, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Leonard Maltin, Vincent Canby, David Thomson, Time Out, the Preston Sturges book "Five Screenplays," and Preston Sturges himself.

Anonymous said...

This must be a relatively new opinion. Your own VOLUNTEERS ran 117 minutes. It, too, could have been cut more without losing a thing.

cadavra said...

The reason many older films are short has to do with the conventions of the era. In the old days, a show wasn't just the feature and some trailers. There would also be a cartoon, a newsreel, often a two-reel comedy, sometimes a one-reel travelogue or band short, maybe even a serial chapter. And of course double features were common. Keeping films short wasn't an artistic decision; it was a necessity. If you look at Warners' output in the early 1930s, you'll find that almost all of them were around 70", give or take. No Columbia film could run for more than 90" (and usually far less) until Capra forced Cohn to ease the edict. And so on.

As one of my old film professors said (pre-Siskel), it's not how good is it long, it's how long is it good.

Ken Levine said...

I could have cheerfully taken another ten to fifteen minutes out of VOLUNTEERS.

d said...

Cadavra, Hammer films in their heyday also had a prescribed length-limit. Hammer horror films tend to be 90 minutes because 90 minutes was the mandated length-limit.

D. McEwan said...

Oops. That "d" comment is mine. Hit the wrong button. Sorry.d

MrTact said...

To be fair, when live action films cut 20 minutes, they're just throwing away stuff they've already paid for. When Pixar cuts 20 minutes, it means they never have to animate it in the first place, saving them millions.