If you saw a comedy movie this summer, you were probably in your seat for a while. Judd Apatow‘s latest comedy, Trainwreck, clocks in at 125 minutes – his shortest comedy since the first movie he directed, 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin (116 minutes). Apatow leads the pack when it comes to comedy directors who have been making long comedies, having directed Funny People (146 minutes) and This Is 40 (134 minutes). While Apatow is the king of lengthy comedies, he isn’t alone. His sometimes collaborator Paul Feig directed Bridesmaids (125 minutes), The Heat (117 minutes), and Spy (120 minutes), and Seth MacFarlane followed up Ted (106 minutes) with A Million Ways to Die in the West (116 minutes) and Ted 2 (115 minutes). Even though it’s only longer than National Lampoon’s Vacation by one minute, this summer’s Vacation is the longest movie in the five-movie Vacation series. Though some of those films have been major box office successes, most of them have been criticized for being just too long.
There is a reason why amateurs at comedy clubs are limited to five minutes or less – any longer and most would lose their audience. Extra minutes can be the difference between greatness and overkill because so much of comedy relies on pace and timing. Steven Spielberg’s 1979 comedy 1941 was critically panned for being overlong despite starring hot comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. At 118 minutes, it is actually shorter than many of today’s comedy movies.
The longest film comedy genius Mel Brooks ever directed was Young Frankenstein (106 minutes), although his greatest accomplishment might have been cramming 3000 years of jokes in 92 minutes of History of the World: Part I. 1984 rock mockumentry This Is Spinal Tap is an 82 minute classic, and many of the 90 minutes of outtakes are just as funny as the original film. But a 180 minute version of Spinal Tap might have had trouble sustaining an audience. Similarly, the 94 minute Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy had so many outtakes that a 93 minute “Lost Movie” (Wake Up Ron Burgundy) was made from the leftovers. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is not only nearly a half-hour longer than the original, but there is a 143 minute extended version. Neither version is nearly as funny as the original.
Many of the funniest movies ever made are under 100 minutes long – Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Christmas Vacation, 48 Hrs., Friday, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Office Space, Airplane, Dr. Strangelove, Wayne’s World, Clerks, Austin Powers, Planes Trains & Automobiles, and The Naked Gun. Other classics are under 110 minutes – Animal House, Groundhog Day, Three Amigos, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, The Odd Couple, A Fish Called Wanda, Stripes, and Dumb & Dumber.
Why are today’s comedy filmmakers making films that are so much longer these days? Being self-indulgent is part of it. If you watch the gag reels or outtakes on Blu-rays of many of these films, it shows that many of the jokes are improvised. Despite directors cutting hours of jokes, many of these scenes become so bloated by the riffing that comedic actors get into. Furthermore, directors like Apatow, Feig, and MacFarlane often direct scripts that they wrote themselves. Perhaps they also want to keep as many of their own jokes from the script into the film.
For the most part these long comedies have been very successful at the box office – so as far as ticket buyers are concerned, comedy quantity still equals quality. Why trim their films when these directors keep having hits? In addition, almost all of these films – plus many other comedies – have extended editions on DVD and Blu-ray that run anywhere from two to thirty minutes longer than the theatrical versions. Because of that, directors and studios likely feel like they can make comedies as long as they want.
Can longer comedies still become classics? There are a few classic longer comedies: Being There (130 minutes), My Cousin Vinny (120 minutes), Some Like It Hot (120 minutes), MASH (116 minutes), Tootsie (116 minutes) and the original The Pink Panther (115 minutes).
Do This Is 40, Spy, and Ted 2 make the list of “long but classic” comedies? We’ll find out if people are still watching and talking about them years from now. Until then, remain ready to laugh longer in theaters.