Last winter, an independent group of Los Angeles-based Second City alumni scored a monster hit on the Internet with a comedy video spoofing the Republican presidential candidate John McCain. According to one of the creators, Andy Cobb, the viral video "John.He.Is" has generated more than 1.6 million clicks on YouTube. It snagged attention and links from CNN, ABC News, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.
And it made the creators almost no money.
"What we've made from that piece," Cobb said by phone Tuesday from Los Angeles, "will now almost buy us a round of drinks at the bar."
On Tuesday, Second City, the famed Chicago-based comedy theater, announced an initiative aimed at making more of a business out of the fast-growing world of viral comedy and landing some of that cash in the pockets of the people who create it.
Privately held Second City said it has created a new partnership with Los Angeles-based Media Rights Capital, an independent film, television and digital studio and content developer. Designed to showcase original content online, the deal involves the creation of a comedy Web site, dubbed "The Second City's Quarantine," as well as an agreement for Media Right Capital to package Second City and freelance talent and material in a variety of online forms.
In essence, Second City gets an infusion of cash to build in the growing digital area of the multistream comedy business and a new partner with extensive experience in connecting online content with advertisers. Media Rights Capital gets access to one of the most powerful brands in comedy.
"This is a talent-driven organization," said Dan Goodman, president of digital media for Media Rights Capital. "We are going to find really innovative advertising partners and make them part of this experience."
There is plenty of comedy on the Web, of course, but the majority of sites with comedy videos are still start-up ventures without extensive revenue generation, and thus without the ability to pay much to the people who create their content.
According to the tracking company ComScore, humor sites with more than a million monthly hits include the National Lampoon Humor Network, FunnyOrDie.com (which involves content developed by Will Ferrell and Second City alumnus Adam McKay) and JibJab Media. Second City says that its Web site gets several million visitors each month.
Two significant ways to make money with videos are to attract people and advertisers to a site, or embed ads in the videos and send them out across the Web to other sites like YouTube. YouTube, which carries a dizzying area of viral videos, has begun paying a small royalty to content providers who score huge numbers of hits.
Overall, humor is not growing as robustly as a category on the Web as other forms of content. According to ComScore figures, humor has grown only 1 percent over the past year, while entertainment news, for example, grew by 43 percent.
But Sean Mills, president of The Onion, which operates one of the big comedy sites, said video "has been the big driver of our growth" over the last year.
The Onion, with primary offices in Chicago and New York, grew by 23 percent year over year, according to ComScore. Mills said ComScore's figures probably underplay the site's growth. "We've definitely been very successful in getting advertising and sponsorship for video."
TheOnion.com, launched in 1996, didn't add videos until last year. It is quickly "trying to produce more videos," Mills said, as they have proved so successful that ad rates are rising.
"When we launched, there was about 400,000 video views a week," Mills said. "Now it's between 1.5 million to 2 million a week."
Andrew Alexander, the owner of Second City, said the new deal will feature both material from current Second City shows and independent projects developed by actors with a past association with the company.
"I see all of this springing out of the work we do in the theater," Alexander said.
But making a profit from short comic videos does not come easily.
"There's a lot of risk in doing something this new," Goodman said. "We have to get past the 'dogs on trampoline' phase of digital comedy."
According to Kelly Leonard, vice president of Second City, that means only posting high-quality comedic product. "Our differential point," Leonard said, "will be trained actors, ensemble-based material and strong production values."
All of those qualities were present in "John.He.Is," which inarguably accounts for much of its success.
The new deal will allow Second City to develop characters from its sketches and repurpose them as sources for TV shows and movies.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times