Why Are Dramas An Hour Long and Comedies a Half Hour?

Ryan McGee has a great post up in defense of comedies that don’t have traditional jokes, like Louie and Girls, and that end up confounding audience expectations as a result. He writes:

We don’t expect our dramas to be comedy-free. In fact, we’d lambaste such programs for having an enormous stick up an enormous orifice. “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” quite often is the funniest show on television on the week a particular episode airs. And we don’t ding them critically for making us laugh. If anything, the ability to make us laugh AND cry is seen as a bonus. Why do hour-longs get the benefit of the doubt while the 30-minute shows are greeted with widespread befuddlement when attempting the same magic trick?…Shows like “Modern Family” thrive because people understand what they will be getting. The ability to repeat that type of content is admirable, and certainly serves a purpose that television has provided as a genre for decades. But it’s time to also point out the shows that constantly have fans wondering what type of show they will be watching that particular week as well.

I’d actually go a step further than this—there’s something odd about assigning comedies thirty-minute slots and dramas to full hours. I understand that it may be more difficult to keep jokes coming over 42 minutes of programming as opposed to 22, and that some dramas require 42 minutes (or on premium cable) an hour to unspiral whatever problem’s been set up for the characters in any given week. But something like Louie’s “Duckling,” a predominantly funny episode of television with some documentary qualities, filled an hour easily last year and to great acclaim (and the next two episodes of the show could easily form an hour whole). And a show like Law & Order, which split episodes fairly evenly between cops and lawyers, shows a model for how you could make half-hour dramas—I feel like a half-hour drama about public defenders catching cases or cops working smaller crimes could work well. In any case, it’s a funny restriction, and it would be interesting to see people experiment around it.