Five years ago this month the influential
Five years later, Funny or Die, which McKay, Ferrell and
McKay, currently prepping "Anchorman 2" (set in the late '70s, during the transition from traditional newscasts to the 24-7 cable universe, he teased), took time out recently to talk by phone about the site's evolution since 2007. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: When you first started in comedy, moving from Philadelphia to Chicago in 1990, going through
A: Yes! And there was no place to put them. There was no outlet. We made them anyway. It was like an animal instinct. A group of us stuck together,
Q: Later, at "Saturday Night Live," you brought short films back in the 1990s, which had been this marginal thing at "SNL," though the tradition went back to the first season. Sounds like you really wanted to direct.
A: Actually, it went exactly like that! I was going to quit the show. I had been head writer for a couple of years and there was all this stuff I wanted to try, but ultimately it's (
Q: You did a short, "The H Is O," where Will Ferrell plays
A: To this day, I bump into people who whisper, "Hey, the H is O." (As in, "The heat is on.") It's like a secret club. And that was also kind of intentional. I never strove to make those shorts popular. It was more like I was going to film school. I had a crew. I had a budget. I shot 16 mm. I was shooting digital by the second year of this. I made a dozen films all together. I wouldn't have known how to direct "Anchorman" if I hadn't shot those videos. But also, some of them were just too crazy for the format. They were not as populist as what the guys at Lonely Island (
Q: Still, you didn't want to do Funny or Die at first, right?
A: I didn't. Ferrell and I still had the dot-com collapse in our heads. The hype around it had gotten so dumb. But the guy who brought the idea to us, Mark Kvamme (of the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital), he had already adjusted. He knew you didn't launch a site like this the way you might have in 1998. It boiled down to, what do we have to lose? None of us, me or Will or Chris, put our money into it. Worst-case scenario, we have an outlet for the stuff we did on "SNL" and it gets 50,000 hits a month. If it was a failure, it wouldn't be a hyped failure. Which is what resonated. It was clearly for the fun of it, and people liked the spontaneity of it.
Q: So "The Landlord" was as roughly made as it looks?
A: Completely. My daughter was going through that phase where she repeated anything you said. My wife would speak French to her, and she would repeat it. I would say "postlapsarian epistemological" and she would repeat it. I said, "You know, Ferrell, Pearl can say anything." So we showed up at his house. My buddy, Drew Antzis, who shot it, was a masseuse at the time. I know him from Chicago, from iO. He said, "I have a couple of massages scheduled. Between them, let's do it." Pearl couldn't focus, but with "Uncle Will," she calmed down. It took about 40 minutes. We didn't think much of it, beyond it being funny. We threw it on the site with no announcement, no press release. Will and I forwarded it to friends. That was about it. Within days,
Q: Early on, within months of launch, the site also began making corporate-sponsored comedy videos. Weren't you leery of that, that it might change this scrappy, spontaneous thing into something deliberate?
A: We were worried. We talked about that at great length. We decided we would just separate those from the rest, the way Second City had done when it started a business unit. With a firewall, it should be fine. The rule is, never do a video unless there's a chance to do something interesting. When this arrangement works best, it's close to TV, working with advertisers behind you. The best example is
Q: But co-opting can be subtle.
A: It can, and we live in a corporate society. Depending on your belief system, that's a positive, a negative or somewhere in between. I'm somewhere in between. Friends give me a hard time about the pants I'm wearing, which are made in China. Well, how do you find the right clothes? Or the right movie studio? The right people giving you checks? Good luck doing the right thing all the time. Will and I discussed this early on: What if Exxon wants an ad? Or
Q: Yet the more ubiquitous the Funny or Die brand gets, don't the jokes have to get broader, too?
A: That's really complicated. "Seinfeld," for instance, was a very specific show, and it had a strong point of view and was as popular as any sitcom in history. Stuff that tries to appeal to a lot of people is often white noise and forgettable. Our marching orders are: Keep it as specific to what you think is funny as you like. But it has to be about what is going on in the world. Not politics necessarily. It has to feel relevant. When I was at "SNL," I would constantly get in arguments, "Why aren't we more political? We're not going after Bush." Then look what happened — that
Q: Would you let the McCain campaign respond back?
A: They did, just not in a video. Which is when I knew they were desperate. But the door would have been open for McCain to post a video — just like it is for Romney to make fun of himself as an uptight white guy.
Q: But you're a political person. You would do a video with someone even if you didn't like their politics?
A: Maybe we would do something. It would have to poke fun, and they couldn't state policy or anything.
Q: One hallmark of Funny or Die is famous people making fun of themselves. At what point, when everyone is in on a joke, does complicity blunt the edge? You mentioned Palin on "SNL." Having her in on the joke, aren't you telling an audience this is just good fun, even if it's not? Humor often starts with anger.
A: That’s a great point. There’s a false equivalency in this country, a sense that both (political parties) are full of it. That’s not true. When you’ve started a war on false evidence and 500,000 people die as a result, that’s an evil deal: So if
Q: Was he?
A: You know what ... kind of. This is fantastic:
Q: This isn't the same thing, obviously, but you've made videos with
A: Because I don’t care as much. The thing is, with someone like that: Are they in the final stages of a crippling addiction? Seemingly about to die? We had this conversation about
Q: Still, you could be enabling him.
A: Yes, that’s right. At “Saturday Night Live,” when we had