WHEN members of the Groundlings improv troupe headed to the alleyway behind their Melrose Avenue theater to shoot "David Blaine Street Magic," they had no idea the spoof would end up becoming one of the most popular videos in YouTube history.
The sendup (with its sometimes-salty language) starts with Blaine -- actually, it's Groundling Mitch Silpa -- playing mind tricks with two supposed passersby, and soon ratchets up the level of "magic" to outrageous proportions. The video short co-written by Groundlings Michael Naughton and Mikey Day, who also costar, currently ranks in the Top 100 of the most-viewed videos on the content-sharing site. It has logged more than 18 million plays, an average five-star rating from viewers and over 37,000 comments that by and large go something like this:
-- best video I've seen on YouTube.
-- ooooomg i'm dying over here. that was hilarious. thank you so much. Hahahaha.
-- Oh, please do more! . . . you gotta do some more.
The video's endurance, combined with sentiments such as that last one in particular -- a request for more of the same -- helped persuade Sony Pictures Television that L.A.'s improvisational comedy troupe has the potential to strike online gold.
User-generated video -- particularly the funny stuff -- is clearly here to stay, said Sean Carey, senior executive vice president of Sony Pictures Television. But ferreting out the good is proving harder and harder in the often random online world. When the public gets tired of watching homemade videos of "people falling off roofs and dogs on a skateboard . . . we want to be in the position of producing quality content on this platform," Carey said. "Who better to do that than people who have been doing sketch comedy and had a track record doing it?"
Under a deal made public in April, the Groundlings will deliver 50 so-called webisodes; the first will debut later this year on Crackle.com and other Sony distribution platforms.
The pact comes as Hollywood scrambles to find The Next Big Thing -- the next lonelygirl15, if you will -- in the hopes of parlaying that into something more marketable, be it a TV show, a movie or, an online show. Sony is also mulling ways to repackage on-line material through their various channels. (Other recent deals include HBO's investment in comedian Will Ferrell's Funny or Die website, and a cash infusion for the creators behind the lonelygirl15 phenomenon.)
"It's definitely the wild, wild West . . . a world where consumers have almost infinite choices," said Brent Weinstein, the chief executive who heads up 60Frames, which does its own producing of online content. "Everyone is trying to figure out their way through the muck. But I do think that creating quality content is really the starting point."
Video that comes courtesy of the Groundlings could prove particularly attractive to advertisers who want to invest in a sure thing, said Bobby Tulsiani, an Internet analyst with JupiterResearch.
"Right now, most of the views are going to user-generated online content," he said. "But advertisers don't always feel safe with that. When a brand is created, you've pre-vetted the content, and now an advertiser can say 'We want to be a part of this skit.' "
For the Groundlings -- a troupe that helped give wings to the likes of Ferrell, Lisa Kudrow, the late Phil Hartman and others -- the deal is an opportunity to get their work in front of a bigger audience than ever before.
"In the theater, we have 99 people watching us. Online, we can have a million," said improv actor Jeremy Rowley, who has been affiliated with the troupe for nearly a decade.
Remade for the monitor
TRANSLATING THE Groundlings' particular brand of humor -- and its emphasis on character development -- from the stage to the computer screen has created a learning curve for the roughly 30-member troupe.
"Stuff that works onstage, in my opinion, has a pretty slim chance of working online," Rowley said. "It's not like 'Aim the video camera at the stage' and you're done."
Unlike the Groundlings' weekly theater shows, which mostly revolve around a series of single-scene skits and improv moments, video shorts often work best when they can stand on their own as self-contained stories that have a beginning, middle and end, said Tim Brennen, a 6-year Groundlings veteran who is the liaison between the troupe and Sony.
"Something that might be hilarious onstage can be too stagnant for video," Brennen said. "It needs to be more action-oriented, more dynamic."
On a recent Friday, Brennen and Rowley were inside the Groundlings' theater, working on separate sketches for Sony.
Upstairs, Brennen was playing the part of an overzealous national security agent tapping the phone calls of unsuspecting Americans.
On center stage, Rowley was wearing a blond wig and red spandex leggings that left little to the imagination as he played the costar of a German TV show teaching safety to schoolchildren. We won't give any jokes away, but suffice it to say you wouldn't want your children -- or anyone else's, for that matter -- exposed to the "Kids Are Safe Now Fantasy Musical Adventure Journey Show."
At one point, children are given a multiple choice question: Is it a felony to have too many friends? Refuse to share toys? Or kill a cop? Cut to a laser sight aiming right between the eyes of a law enforcement officer. (Told you.) Rowley and the rest of the crew gather around the video camera to watch a playback. The talk is about the use of the laser sight. "Is that going to play on the small screen? I don't know," Rowley wonders aloud. The actor wearing the police uniform is sent back to his mark for another take, only this time the laser will focus on his forehead for a longer beat -- and a close-up.
Any initial fears that a pact with Sony would lead to big studio interference have since been dismissed. There have been some creative suggestions here and there, Rowley said, but "they've been letting us be the captain of the ship."
That's a responsibility that cuts both ways, he said. If a skit hits, the writers and actors get all the glory. If it flops, there's no one to point the finger at.
Failure, though, is not something that scares off actors who specialize in improvisation. In fact, they find that threat part of the thrill.
"Once you've had the experience of failing onstage in front of a live audience, and then you wake up the next morning and realize, 'Oh, the world didn't end,' it helps you take more chances," Rowley said.
"We know we're doing something that's a little funnier, a little better than what's out there," Brennen said, "but it's really a shotgun approach: see what sticks and what goes viral."