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Community has longer running times on Yahoo. That leads to a funnier show.

Annie (Alison Brie) contemplates a terrible thought on the latest episode of Community. The show's longer running times at Yahoo are helping it considerably.
Annie (Alison Brie) contemplates a terrible thought on the latest episode of Community. The show's longer running times at Yahoo are helping it considerably.
Yahoo Screen
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

"Basic Crisis Room Decorum," the latest episode of Community, features a hilarious gag that doesn't really have much reason to be in the episode. (You can watch the episode on Yahoo Screen here.)

In it, the Dean (Jim Rash) communicates via text message with a person he believes to be Jeff Winger (Joel McHale). The best way to understand the relationship between these two is in terms of Looney Tunes characters. The Dean, eternally enamored of the much cooler Jeff, is amorous cartoon skunk Pepe LePew, while Jeff is that poor cat Pepe was always chasing around. The Dean's love isn't so much romantic as all-consuming, and Jeff bears it with mild irritation and gentle good humor. He's smart enough to stay one step ahead.

In this case, that means he's given the Dean a fake phone number, so the Dean is constantly texting a teenager in Japan who pretends to be Jeff, playing along with what's obviously a wrong number. Throughout the episode, the teen convinces the Dean to bring Jeff five cans of olives, and then later gets embroiled in a lengthy discussion about the nature of the self after he tries to come clean and say he's not Jeff. It's a great running gag.

It's also the sort of thing that would inevitably be cut from most network sitcoms, because it doesn't have much bearing on the rest of the episode (which is about the characters dealing with an attack ad from a rival school). In its shift to Yahoo, Community is discovering the chief benefit of internet TV — when you aren't pinned to a particular time slot, you don't need to worry about fitting a running time.

The problems with the traditional model

For the better part of four months, I've been working on a piece about the state of the TV sitcom, specifically traditional sitcoms filmed before a live studio audience. In the course of my interviews for that, I've often asked producers and writers how much they struggle to fit their programs into the standard network running times. And in almost every case, the answer is quite a bit.

Here's the thing — most network TV shows feature two or three stories per episode (usually called the A-story, then the B-story and C-story), and most network comedies are forced to cram all of that into an episode that typically runs a bit over 21 minutes and sometimes as little as 19 minutes. That's not enough time to tell a full story, much less two or three of them, which is why so many comedies (particularly the ones with audience laughter) seem to lean so heavily on overdone storytelling tropes.

Why do shows have such short running times? Broadcast networks, which are trying to wring as much blood as possible from an ever-shrinking stone, have cut shows down to the bone in an attempt to sell as much commercial time as possible. This hasn't been so bad for dramas — it's hard to imagine the lightning-fast pace of, say, Scandal without shorter running times — but it's been murder on comedies, which often seem to be telling stories through shorthand.

How comedies try to work with this


The Dean (Jim Rash, left) thinks he's texting Jeff, but he's actually texting a Japanese teenager. (Also pictured: Danny Pudi as Abed.) (Yahoo Screen)

There are a few ways around this. The shows of producer Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, among others) often eschew endings altogether, getting viewers to the point where the story would tip over into the third act and then simply assuming we'll fill in the blanks.

Community and 30 Rock have often winked and nodded toward the fact that the stories they're telling are filled with formulaic sitcom beats, trusting the audience to know these plots are old hat. Cable comedies either have longer running times (as with anything on HBO, which doesn't air ads) or aren't as bound by conventional storytelling (as with FX's experimental comedy Louie).

And a show like NBC's just-ended Parks and Recreation simply preserved silliness above all else. As that show's co-creator Michael Schur told me earlier this year (as part of something that was ultimately cut from this interview):

Network TV is basically an obstacle course every week. It's 21 minutes and 30 seconds to the frame, and you have to have a certain number of acts, and no acts can be less than 90 seconds, but no acts can be greater than eight minutes. It's just a weird, slightly archaic method of making TV, compared to obviously what would happen if you were on Amazon or Netflix or whatever, where the world is your oyster.

What I realized was that there's a lot of room within that for goofiness and frivolity. There were a lot of times when we would write something, and it would seem like, "We can't leave this in, because we don't have time for it, and it isn't advancing the story." Ultimately, I realized that there's a lot of value in leaving things in episodes that are purely silly and purely fun. Sometimes, that was spending 60 seconds with Tom Haverford telling us his dumb names for food.

There wasn't a big reason to do that, except that it made everybody laugh. There's a cumulative value, especially long-term over the run of a show, in writing things that are purely to make you laugh and that you just think are funny. A lot of times, you'll be like, "This will be a great deleted scene. We'll just throw this on the DVD." But other times, it's like, "No, that's part of the fabric of the show."

But look at what Schur says in that first paragraph: when you're on Netflix or Amazon — or Yahoo — you can break the mold a little bit.

How Community is embracing this

Shows can't yet do this as much as they might want. For one thing, most American programs are sold into foreign markets where they will continue to air in more traditional time slots. And there are production realities about just how much footage can reasonably be shot in a week. Community can't suddenly do a four-hour episode one week and a three-minute one the next.

Plus there's something to be said for the forced brevity of network television. When Arrested Development aired its fourth season on Netflix, after its first three seasons aired on Fox, the worst episodes were often the bulkiest ones, including an episode that stretched to 37 minutes — just five minutes shorter than many network dramas.

But in its Yahoo run, Community has quietly embraced the fact that its running times can now push toward the 25-minute mark, if not past it. The episodes don't feel dramatically different than they used to at 21 minutes and change, but they do have more room to breathe. The stories are given more time to set up, and ridiculous gags like the Dean's mistaken texts are given their full glory. It all allows Community to feel as if it's stretching its wings, just a little bit.

Comedy requires great characters and great jokes. It requires solid stories to keep those jokes moving along. But it also needs time. By moving to Yahoo, Community may have shown just how much better things can be when sitcoms get room to breathe.