During a brainstorming meeting in mid-September, the writers sat around a table, each behind a laptop and lobbied sketch ideas. There was a dollop of sarcasm with every A-list name dropped, as if the writers were slightly baffled by their level of influence. They quickly kicked aside a few duds -- Kevin Costner in a "JFK" spoof, singer Josh Groban searching for Osama bin Laden -- before talk turned to the Holy Grail of FunnyorDie videos: Michael Bay directing "The World's Greatest Cat Video." The blockbuster director passed on the concept a long time ago. But that didn't faze anyone.
"The fact that we got his agent to say, 'Yeah, I'll tell him you guys want him to shoot a video of a cat,' " writer-director Szymanski said, ignoring the room's palpable smirk, "that's an insane accomplishment." For all the big-deal financing, the site's production staff has a DIY sort of moxie. There's no real budget for each video. They script, film and edit with a skeleton crew. And the sketches are often posted days after a sketch is conceived.
"We pitched Natalie Portman and Rasheeda Jones [on a] Monday at 5, and we shot three videos with them the next day at noon," said head of production Mike Farah.
FunnyorDie wasn't exactly a sure thing. The company launched after several well-publicized failures to bring sketch comedy to the Web, NBC's DotComedy.com, Time Warner's This Just In and Time Inc.'s Office Pirates among them. Only Barry Diller's New York-based CollegeHumor.com has thrived. So when Sequoia Capital's Mark Kvamme first approached Ferrell and McKay, they balked.
"But it soon became clear that Mark and his team were first and foremost interested in a funny site with its own voice," said McKay. "They knew that a watered-down lowest-common-denominator site would not work."
At the time, Ferrell and McKay had already established themselves with the blockbuster "Talladega Nights" and cult hit "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." The "Saturday Night Live" veterans had a lot of famous friends. One of them, Judd Apatow, became a principal partner in FunnyorDie.
They introduced the site in time for the presidential election and rode the ensuing political dust-ups to Internet fame. The campaign led to two of the site's biggest hits: " Paris Hilton Responds to McCain Ad," featuring the bikini-clad heiress as a surprisingly articulate, visionary candidate, and "Prop. 8: The Musical," starring John C. Reilly, Neil Patrick Harris and Jack Black as Jesus.
Back on the set of "Rachel Bilson's Deleted Sex Scene," Scott and Szymanski concluded their romantic pas de deux, rolled off the bed, donned matching flannel robes and wandered off in opposite corners of the studio. Everyone else filed over to a table stacked with pizzas and Bilson disappeared into a dressing room. Scott later reemerged fresh-faced and fully dressed, as if the cringe-inducing scene had happened to someone else.
For Scott, who costars on the Starz network's ensemble comedy "Party Down," the shoot was a quick, easy way to stay comically nimble and have fun. Best known for his risky (read: full frontal nudity) dramatic performance in HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me," Scott also recently costarred with Ferrell in the goofy comedy "Step Brothers." Still, he didn't realize exactly what he was in for when he signed on.
While Bilson's role amounted to a few breathy close-ups, Scott spent a good 20 minutes with his finger in another man's bellybutton. "I am taking the hits on this one," Scott said, running his hands through his hair. "I've hung out with Jake a couple of times -- but wow."