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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

In Defense Of: The 22 Minute Episode

On January 22, 2016, The Ringer’s Andy Greenwald had an excellent interview with Michael Schur. Mr. Schur was a former writer on The Office, he’s the creator of Parks and Recreation, and the co-creator of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. You can listen to the podcast in full here. In the discussion, Mr. Greenwald brings up Mr. Schur’s upcoming NBC show The Good Place, and why Mr. Schur decided to go back to a broadcast network as opposed to a premium channel or streaming service. Below is an excerpt from that discussion:

MICHAEL SCHUR: I believe that there are many, many, many, many advantages to doing a show on a premium cable or streaming service like, for example, there’s no commercials, you can curse, you can do whatever you want, you can make the episodes whatever length you want-

ANDY GREENWALD: I like that “doing whatever you want” was the third thing after “cursing”.

MS: Cursing, I, I wholeheartedly support cursing on TV. I think there should be more cursing in general- and more bleeping

AG: But bleeping is funnier than cursing.

MS: I kind of agree, um, but you can also, like there’s on network you run, you have to run the credits over the show which interrupts the show, there’s snipes for other shows that interrupt your show… so I, there obviously, there are many obvious advantages of going somewhere besides a network, but I think there are also advantages that are maybe less obvious of staying on network, besides just a sense of loyalty that the NBC Peacock means something to me, it does. I think comedy works really well when there are a lot of obstacles to it, um, I think obstacles breads creativity and breeds good problem solving and I think that comedy works best when it’s very crisp and lean, and I think that if you say to someone like, “You can have as much time as you want, and you can- there’s no commercials, and you can mill around, and just get in that pool and swim around”, I think a lot of- my opinion, some comedies, many comedies, or at least half hour shows that are on other networks, premium  networks we’ll call them, can get a little “meander-y” and a little kinda soft. And that’s not to say that’s bad, or maybe that’s exactly what they’re going for, but there’s a way in which having to write in a crisp, three-act structure, or now it’s like a four-act structure- which is a whole other problem, but having  to write to, a certain, when you’re breaking stories it forces you to be really lean and mean, it forces you to edit yourself, it forces you to think about the classic storytelling structure of Act One, Act Two, Act Three, and I, and I, it’s not that you don’t remember those things, you don’t suddenly forget them if you go somewhere else, but I think it becomes less vital to your process, and I kind of believe that it’s good for writing to be, to be presented with those specific obstacles- for comedy at least.

MS: The show should be as long as the story demands, not as long as you can take with it. And part of what I like about being on a network is- it’s a little annoying that every episode has to be exactly twenty-one minutes and thirty seconds, I think it’s extremely unlikely, that the optimal length for every single episode of every single show is exactly that long… but it is a sort of, like, this is the deal man, that you have to write, and edit, and act a story that is length, and it’s not very long, and there’s something that’s kind of perversely appealing about that to me.”

Little did Mr. Schur know (or maybe he did), that a few weeks after that conversation, Netflix would release Love- a comedy partially brought to them by the King of the Non-Edit Judd Apatow. The show is ten episodes long, and the pilot came in at a little over 40 minutes with the rest of the episodes averaging 33 minutes per episode. The length of these episodes, especially the pilot, has been a common complaint of the show. Judd Apatow has made an entire career in comedy since 2005’s The 40 Year Old Virgin based upon his refusal to edit down his movies (or entire storylines as was the case with his wife Leslie Mann’s character in Funny People). It’s made Mr. Apatow very wealthy and powerful- but it’s also caused a decrease in the quality of his work. Either way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that a Judd Apatow project was as long as it was.

However, Mr. Apatow is not the only one guilty of creating comedies that are too long. Tina Fey, arguably Mr. Apatow’s equal in terms of power and creating content, had this same problem with the second season of her show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The first season of show, while originally airing on Netflix, was created and shot to be aired on NBC. Therefore, it had the same constructs and obstacles that Mr. Schur discussed earlier. A Tina Fey, and her creative partner Robert Carlock, project is known for jamming in as many jokes per episode as possible. That’s partially what made the first season of Kimmy Schmidt so hilarious. However, Fey and Carlock did not have those restrictions for the show’s second season, and it showed. By Netflix giving Fey and Carlock a longer leash and more freedom, the show seemed unable to have that same zip, swagger and ability to throw out a nonsensical, yet gut bustingly funny one-liner like it did in the show’s rookie season. The quantity of the jokes seemed the same, but they were more spread out since the episodes were longer. Therefore, the jokes didn’t land as effectively as they probably would have if the episodes were only 22 minutes long.

Netflix isn’t the only network guilty of this (although we’ll get to them later), as Showtime and HBO also give their creative teams more leeway and more freedom- largely in part that since these networks don’t have commercials. Comedies on these networks have to be a full 30 minutes. While that’s still less time than the average episode length of Love, it’s still significantly more time than a network show like Parks and Recreation. I think the time length hurts the quality of these shows. That’s a huge reason why I give up on Veep. I got excited when I saw that their episodes were only 30 minutes long, but as I binge watched the show’s first two seasons, I realized that, “holy crap, these episodes are a full 30 minutes in length”. There is just too much time to fill and not enough content (or jokes) for that time.

The comedies that (I believe) succeed the most are the ones that either highly self-edit themselves, or have so many interesting subplots bursting at the seams that the extra time is essential. Mr. Schur worked with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, the creators of Netflix’s Master of None, to edit and edit their episodes to create ten short films that are as crisp as possible. Since both Mr. Ansari and Mr. Yang come from the world of network comedies and enlist help from a man who strongly believes in the 22-minute episode format, they are able to create the best possible project. Or, take for example something like Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. That show has a principal cast larger than the amount of superheroes in Captain America: Civil War with at least 6 different subplots going on at once. That’s a show that needs time to bounce around from place to place and character to character and Netflix gave that show that freedom to bounce.

Not only do premium channels and streaming services seemingly have an issue with the length of their episodes, but also with the length of the amount of episodes per season. Alison Herman recently wrote about Netflix’s issue with their 13 episode per season model for The Ringer. Her argument is that Orange Is The New Black has been Netflix’s only great drama, but it’s the only show that can successfully fill a 13 episode order thanks to, like Wet Hot American Summer, its litany of subplots and characters. Shows like House of Cards, Bloodline, and Daredevil all suffer because they’re in contraction with Mr. Schur’s point about natural story length versus network time demands. The biggest loser of Netflix’s 13-episode demand order was Jessica Jones. The show was incredible, but very clearly and obviously dragged as it limped towards the finish line. If Netflix really wanted to give its artists freedom, it would have told the Jessica Jones crew to make as many or as little episodes as necessary, or flat out told them to cut episodes once they saw the finished product.

Premium networks and streaming services have given us some great comedies. But at the end of the day, the evidence is clear, especially for streaming services, that there does need to be more notes and editing done to these shows if they want the best possible product. As a showrunner and creator, it’s certainly nice not to have your work criticized at every step of the way, but ultimately, that criticism will probably make you and your work better as a result. This is even more important as the best and brightest move away from the networks and their notes and move towards premium networks and streaming services. As channels like HBO and Netflix dominate the comedy landscape (and they pretty much have already), we all need to work on making sure we have the best comedies possible.



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