How long should an act be?
Fifty years ago the standard for variety acts was seven minutes. More or less. That was considered the correct amount of time. If you asked today you’d get every answer imaginable. The producer who’s lying to you at America’s Got Talent will tell you ninety seconds. Some old timer will tell you seven. Some new timer will say: An act should be as long as it needs to be, no longer and no shorter. Which is great advice. Like most great advice it is vague, leaving you to work it out for yourself.
The reality is that there is no “right” answer to the question “How long should my act be?”. It is subjective. It’s often clear (to an audience at least) when an act is too long or more rarely too short. It’s just as rare to know when an act is just right. Audiences intuitively know when an act is the right length but few would be able to articulate that feeling.
So why talk about it?
I don’t feel like it’s useful to give you some blanket number of minutes that you should make all of your acts. I do think it’s useful to give you a frame work that will make your act as versatile as possible. Acts should have three lengths: 90 seconds, 4 minutes, and whatever length it needs to be.
Having this flexibility for all of your acts will make it easy to perform and adapt to any situation.
90 seconds has become a standard amount of time for television spots and talent competitions as well as being a great amount of time to use between other artists when MCing a show. It’s long enough to show a couple of tricks or skills, tell a couple of jokes, and move on to the next thing.
It’s also super easy to come up with a 90 second version of an act. There is no reason not to do it.
4 minutes is a great amount of time for a guest spot in a variety show, to cover a long transition when MCing, or to test a new idea. It’s long enough to see if something is good but not so long that you’re languishing while your newest brilliant idea dies on stage.
It also happens to the time limit for your act if you want to perform at Scot Nery’s Boobie Trap in L.A. Boobie Trap is the premier variety show in America right now. It is attracting not only the best and brightest from variety but also television stars and avant-garde comedians. So why not work on making your acts fit into a 4 minute slot?
Here is what the man himself had to say when I asked him why 4 minutes.
“It seemed slightly uncomfortable for an entertainer to do less than 5 minutes of a good thing and slightly uncomfortable for an audience to watch more than 3 minutes of a bad thing. ✌”
The length it needs to be…
Obviously let your acts grow and develop and take as long as they need to. Do your best to recognize when an act is getting too long or too short. Having a 90 second and 4 minute version of the act will help with this. You’ll start to think about what is nessecary and what isn’t. You might try to build a 4 minute version but find that you have too much that you love and it ends up being a solid 6.
These are guidelines. Not rules. Maybe you end up with an act that has a 30 second version, a 6 minute version, and a 15 minute version. You’d still have a flexible act for every situation. I’d recommend working on at least one act that can support three time lengths: short, medium, and whatever. Having all three for every act you do is just a bonus.
Take the time and write them out. Rehearse them. Perform each version. That way when you need to make a switch you aren’t deciding what to keep and what to cut in the moment. You’ll already know how to adjust the act to the time you need.
From the Field
Here are three examples from my own career where I’ve done this and been grateful that I put in the work ahead of time.
1. I was performing at the Moisture Festival in Seattle and another act went long. Way long. 30 minutes long. The producers were upset and stressed out. They didn’t want to ask anyone to cut their acts but they needed to shave some time off the show. I was able to offer a 4 minute version of my act instead of the full length version I’d planned on performing. They were super grateful, I was able to help, and the audience didn’t know the difference. It was also no big deal for me. I’d performed a 4 minute version before and was comfortable with it. I was confident I could deliver the same quality act as the full length version.
2. This story is the opposite. I flew through a show and when I looked at my watch I realized that at the current pace I would finish the show too early. I had one act in the show that I had condensed to 4 minutes in order to make room for some new jokes and I was able to un-condense (?) it to make sure I ended at the right time.
3. When I performed on America’s Got Talent I had to turn all of my work into 90 second clips. I spent a long time agonizing over it and ultimately I made some poor decisions. I wish I had thought about it more and was better prepared. Now when I MC a show or am in charge of covering a transition I know some 90 second versions of the act and don’t have to worry about it. In a small way it makes me feel like I DID win…
Make a short, medium, and just right version of your act. If it was good enough for whoever wrote Goldilocks it’s good enough for us. Use 90 seconds, 4 minutes, and how ever long it needs to be as a framework to experiment with. It will improve your acts and make you easier and more flexible to work with.