(The following is a preliminary theory I have had. Thus far, I have not been able to get a sizable grant so that I could fully test the theory and submit a paper to a prestigious academic journal.)
Chico: I can’t think of the ending.
Groucho: That’s funny, I can’t think of anything else.
Nothing in entertainment is worse than going on too long at the expense of patience. Even the funniest joke can become exhausting if it is overtaxed. Who can explain why it has often been said that the act of smiling uses fewer muscles than frowning, and yet my jaws get tired after an extended period of hilarity while an extended period of moping about seems only to produce pent-up energy? It is with this in mind that I say that comedies should, as a general rule, be no longer than 90 minutes, and only that long if they are funny. Indeed, the unfunny comedy should not be made at all so far as I am concerned.
By comedy I mean any film that is not to be taken seriously. There are plenty of hybrids such as romantic comedies and action comedies that surpass the 90 minute mark successfully. Those will be addressed soon enough, but for now the focus is on pure comedy.
Now 90 minutes represents the longest singular loop of a comedy cycle, which can be captured on film. That is to say, all mediums of art have what I like to call biorhythms. By my best and humble estimation, the comedy film has a biorhythm cycle that can be stretched up to a maximum of 90 minutes (but is better left un-stretched). After that, it is very difficult to maintain hilarity because fatigue sets in and the law of diminishing returns goes into effect. I believe it was Billy Wilder who, upon talking of comedies, said that anything over 90 minutes counts double.
The director has every right to exceed this time limit of 90 minutes, but he does so at his own peril.
Now 90 minutes is meant as a limit, not a universal mean. Every comedy has its own clock and it is essential that it does not exceed that clock. The 90 minute mark simply represents the maximum amount of time to which a clock can be calibrated. If a film is designed to have x number of quips or gags a minute with a projected 33% or higher success rate (laughter rate), then 90 minutes may be justified. However, if the film maintains the quotient for x, but only intends to achieve a 10% success rate, then 60 minutes may be the ideal length. Conversely, if x is dramatically increased while the projected success rate remains at 33%, then the overall length of the film should still be shortened to prevent audience exhaustion. There is a medium effective range where the quantity of jokes coupled with the laugh rate will achieve maximum results and the mean value will always be 90 minutes or less. Violating this formula is like having a sprinter jog a 100 yard dash or marathon runner sprint an entire marathon – neither will earn a medal.
Can comedy fall short of its optimum mean, and if so, can it be improved with added length? The answer is yes. But consider, for example, how many director’s cut versions of films are actually better than the original theatrical release. The simple truth is that even during the most efficient days of the Hollywood system the human instinct is rarely adequately regimented towards brevity, even though, as Shakespeare said: “brevity is the soul of wit.” So, too, is it with comedy.
Duck Soup is a fine example of a film with a rapid joke dispersal rate coupled with a very high reaction percentage where the total running time wisely clocks in at a mere 70 minutes. Had the film gone on for another twenty minutes the law of diminishing returns would have happened prior to the 90 minute mark as evidenced by another great Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera, which is 92 minutes. Both are rightly hailed as excellent films, but the latter is clearly on the wane of their artistic achievement while the former is at the very apex. Reasons for this claim can be partly attributed to the difference in running times, including the noticeable fact that A Night at the Opera violates the maximum length by two minutes. Now it may be noted that with the shift to MGM, the Marx Brothers movies focused increasingly on song and dance as well as romantic plots in an effort to expand the range of the films to a more general pool of entertainment, yet these are precisely the elements that should have been trimmed down to achieve an ideal length of 77 to 80 minutes.
An evolution of the Marx Brothers is somewhat telling as they honed their craft to film. The first two productions, Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, ran at 96 and 98 minutes, respectively. Both were adapted from the stage, which is not necessarily subject to the 90 minute rule. However, both films have slower editing, more intricate subplots and music that was typical of their stage productions. As such, Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers were almost exactly 6 and 8 minutes too long.*1 The Brothers hit their stride when they left New York City to make their next three Paramount pictures in Hollywood. These three films would constitute the greatest triumvirate of comedies ever: Monkey Business (77min), Horse Feathers (67min), and Duck Soup (70min). In these three films the editing was more polished and more brisk, thanks to the advanced skill of the studio system, the subplots were stripped down and the music was minimized.*2 When MGM bought the Brothers, they made sure to dilute their property with more serious romantic subplots, heavier doses of music, stricter censorship and less artistic license. Even when the MGM films fell under the 90 minute mark, this dissolution required an even shorter running time because the jokes were less risqué and the resulting reaction percentage was diminished. Thus, the greatest comedy team of the 20th century did not achieve the stellar record that should have been theirs, though they still hold the top spot in film comedy. Stricter adherence to the ninety minute rule, in all its subtleties, would have only added to their legacy.
Other comedy teams had virtually no conflicts with the 90 minute rule, and thus were able to maximize their performance. The Bowery Boys, who made over 50 films, not including ones under their other names like the East Side Kids, the Dead End Kids, etc., rarely made a picture much over 70 minutes long. Their track record does not warrant further mention except to say that such devotion to formula, to the point of re-using about seven plots almost equally, resulted in remarkable consistency. I would venture to doubt that a person would have anything more than a +/- 5 laugh differential between any two of their movies – and rarely a +/-5 minute running time differential.
At a higher level of comic achievement, Abbott and Costello, the quintessential duo for comedy timing, stayed very true to the rule. With the exception of three films*3, they did not violate the rule and maintained a rough average of 82.9 minutes per movie. Other comedians followed suit. The silent comedians tended towards films that ranged typically from 40 minutes up to 90 minutes, as did W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, so on and so forth in diminishing rank.
Hybrids offer a way past the 90 minute cycle by fusing humor with another genre to expand the role and scope of a picture while, in theory, still enjoying the acute wisdoms of comedy. However, the success of the film past the 90 minute mark rests solely on whether the adjacent genre can stand on its own.
It is in this way that we can interpret the success of Howard Hawk’s screwball comedies, which consistently ran for lengths of 100 minutes. The performance on a romance/love story level was ably portrayed by Cary Grant and a high-powered actress – instilling longevity to the script. In contrast, the later, lesser, longer works of Charlie Chaplin weighed more and more on heavier themes as his persona virtually lived in torment. When the fusion works – and it’s arguable that it worked well with Chaplin – then the 90 minute rule is ceded in favor of the other genre. But this, too, can be a slippery slope. Such fusions are rarely consistent, and can often lead a picture to be but a hollow over-blown shell of entertainment. I would cite the several star-studded epic race comedies of the 60’s as a prime example (referring to films like Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies and It’s a Mad, Mad…oh, hell, even the title is too long!). Despite allowing for the rare hybrid exception, prudence warns against mixing “overlong” and “action” with “comedy” unless a “zilch” is what you seek. It is simply not in the natural design of comedy to support such things.
Of course, to every rule is a troublesome exception. Perhaps the most notable exception to thia rule is Jerry Lewis. Though many of his pictures that went over the 90 minute mark can be considered too long, it is hard to determine how to cut The Nutty Professor (107min) shorter and at the same time improve it. How he surpassed the mark is unknown, though perhaps that is a question for the French (thus solving two mysteries at once). And of course, there are other exceptions – though most have explanations (Blues Brothers – 133min: action/comedy, still too long; Young Frankenstein – 108min: period piece/comedy; Princess Bride – 98min: swashbuckler/comedy). The thing to notice here is the flexibility of the hybrid factor.
Since the late fifties, the rule as a limit is still often observed, but the calibration of comedy to running time has consistently been stretched and challenged. More and more film makers completely ignore the rule, often with the same predictable results: a funny movie that is x over 90 minutes too long. This has plagued Peter Sellers (as an early example); National Lampoon, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks (when he decides to violate the rule) and so on.
At the very least, the 90 minute rule should always be applied if only to make a bad movie more bearable by offering a light at the end of the tunnel. It is one thing to be trapped in a theater for two plus hours, it is quite another to be out within 90 minutes. The difference may not sound like much until you accrue all the bad 90+ minute comedies one sees in a lifetime. So, if you are a director of comedies, please, pity your audience and let your conscience be your guide.
*1 As a disclaimer, it should not be inferred that the scores for either picture was sub-par in any shape or form.
*2 Musical numbers involving the Marx Brothers, particularly with Groucho singing or with all three singing, are integral to the films. So when I charge that “These are precisely the elements that should have been trimmed down…” I draw a distinction between the non-Marx romantic lead sharing a duet to the main actress (scrap) and any of Groucho’s songs or the big number at the end of Duck Soup.
*3 The three films include: Rio Rita –91; Little Giant –92; In Hollywood –111.