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Including commercials, most television sitcoms are about half an hour long, whereas dramas tend to fill an hour-long slot. Though I haven't crunched the numbers myself, I get a feeling that the length difference holds for films as well. But even if the difference in average movie running times isn't so great, I'm pretty sure the overall distributions are very different—a lot of very popular dramas are around three hours long, but I can't think of many straight-up comedies that run much past two hours.

What accounts for this difference? Is it harder for a writer to sustain a humorous story for more than two hours? Or do audiences fatigue faster from mirth than other emotions?

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Dramas tend to have very involved plots. There are a lot of details to fill in, a lot of twists to the plot, a lot of storytelling.

Comedies, on the other hand, often have simpler plots with less details. The focus is on the humor, not necessarily the story (although there has to be a storyline, even if it's simple).

With regards to TV shows, most sitcoms (actually, every sitcom I can think of) is "stand-alone". There may be some running jokes, but the plot tends to be resolved in one episode. Dramas, however, tend to run as a continuous story, and so the plots often need to intertwine from episode to episode. This adds to the complexity of the story, which requires more time to tell it.

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    This answer explains why dramas are long, but not really why comedies are short. Sure, a comedy doesn't need as much time to tell a story, but what's preventing them from just telling a longer one? Why don't we see any successful three-hour comedies the way we see successful three-hour dramas? – Psychonaut Dec 8 '15 at 14:10
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    @Psychonaut Short shows/movies = more money. A 2.5 hour film can only screen 4-5 times in a day. A 1.5 hour film can screen 6-8 times per day. Faster turnover means more ticket sales. – Catija Dec 8 '15 at 14:27
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    Ever seen "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"? That one runs over 3 hours. – Johnny Bones Dec 8 '15 at 15:26
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    @Catija Your financial explanation is true, but it applies to all movies, not just comedies. – BrettFromLA Dec 8 '15 at 22:33
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    @Catija You never did, that's true. But you were responding to Psychonaut's comment which ends by saying, "Why don't we see any successful three-hour comedies the way we see successful three-hour dramas". So I read that into your comment. – BrettFromLA Dec 8 '15 at 22:41
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Alyssa Rosenberg asks this question in a column she wrote and makes some interesting observations:

  • Louis CK easily filled an hour of comedy with his show.
  • Law & Order, though an hour long, has always been essentially two half-hour dramas (The cop show, then the lawyer show).

For the argument that comedies have less storytelling to deal with than dramas, I could find plenty of counter arguments. Many of your standard-fair procedural crime dramas are quite cliche and follow essentially the same handful of story lines over and over. Conversely, there as some very dense and layered comedies that take an entire series to get to some of the punch-lines (such as Arrested Development).

So, for every argument why one is an hour and the other is a half hour in terms of complexity or story, it seems we can find an example to counter it.

I don't know the answer, but one theory I'd put forth is how the pacing of a comedy tends to differ from that of a drama. Simply put, a comedy tends to need a much faster pace. It's supposed to be (or historically has been) a light show meant to make us laugh and forget (or laugh at) reality. As such, it needs to have a fairly quick pace full of jokes and one liners. And that's hard to do for an entire hour.

Conversely, a drama can actually benefit from slow parts. The overall pace of a drama tends to be slower and varied. Giving more 'elbow room' of an hour simply allows the drama to pace itself better.

I'd argue that's why 'funny' hour-long shows (such as Better Call Saul) aren't strictly comedies, but 'dramedies'. They can be plenty funny, but since they mix in the pacing of a drama, they can much more easily handle the full hour pacing.

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