Funny or Die on a mission to live large
There’s a pig. And it’s wearing a Donald Trump wig.
It’s a hectic Wednesday afternoon at the Hollywood offices of the comedy website-turned-digital entertainment studio Funny or Die. The company just celebrated its fourth birthday, and there’s a national board meeting underway in lawn chairs on the roof, for which slick-suited executives have flown in from all over the country. Downstairs, the aforementioned live pig -- here to make a video -- wanders the hallway in a jacket and striped tie.
Amid the pre-shoot chaos, comedian Richard Belzer shuffles by, unfazed by the pig. It’s all very Monty Python-esque -- one half expects the voice of Moses to suddenly bellow from an overhead speaker.
And yet the organized lunacy seems perfectly fitting. Funny or Die, founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, is a whirling dervish of Web video production. It’s also become a veritable pop cultural institution. Its mix of user-submitted videos and “exclusive” star-packed sketch comedy bits draws about 17 million visitors a month to what’s now a “comedy community,” with a tangle of social media offshoots. Videos often go viral, with the potential to bring upward of 50 million hits each.
It’s no wonder that an appearance on Funny or Die has become something of a status symbol for celebrities, who offer their star power for free to “leak” edgy, fun comedy shorts into the zeitgeist, strategically timed to promote their projects. Or, as Rebecca Mader of “Lost” explains, to tweak their image. “This feels sort of naughty and rebellious -- especially if you’re on network television.”
The site’s a mash-up of famous faces, boasting videos starring Natalie Portman, Mike Tyson, Paris Hilton and Eva Longoria, among many others. Liv Tyler, Katherine Heigl, Bill Paxton and Miranda Cosgrove all have projects in development there.
Now Funny or Die is using the site -- on which it can create short videos quickly and cheaply -- as an incubation lab for pitching and marketing new material to TV networks and movie studios. The company is also stepping into feature films, merchandising (interactive T-shirts, anyone?), iPhone/ iPad apps and book publishing.
“I go out and people say, ‘I love Funny or Die,’ and I don’t know what Funny or Die they’re talking about,” says creative director Andrew Steele, formerly a head writer on “Saturday Night Live.” “Is it stuff we did on the Internet? Soon they’re gonna mean the film world and the television world.”
HBO just green-lighted a third season of the TV series “Funny or Die Presents” and FOD’s new half-hour show, “Jon Benjamin Has a Van,” is set to premiere on Comedy Central this summer. There are three other FOD TV pilots “in various stages” in the works, Steele says.
The company also just wrapped its first feature film, “Tim And Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.” It’s a low-budget movie with big cameos, and the cast includes many FOD regulars such as Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jeff Goldblum and John C. Reilly. Financed by 2929 Productions, which has a distribution deal with Magnolia, the picture is in the editing stage. Steele says they’re considering a handful of other film projects, but he’s wary of growing too quickly.
“There’s definitely a danger of overdoing it,” he admits. “We pick and choose quite a bit actually. We have to manage it.”
Overextending the brand is a legitimate concern. By late 2007 the company had begun expanding into a network of user-curated websites, including Eat Drink or Die. But in late 2008, “when the world collapsed,” says President and CEO Donald Glover, they scaled back. “We directed our focus at where we thought we were really good: Funny or Die,” Glover says. The company is now “definitely profitable,” he says.
Having last week won nine Webby Awards for 2010, Funny or Die has seemingly mastered the art -- and commerce -- of interactive, multimedia comedy, something myriad sites like the now-defunct Super Deluxe (TBS), ThisJustIn (HBO/AOL) and Dot Comedy (NBC) weren’t able to do. User content is free, and stars draw traffic to the homepage, which helps sell banner ads and branded content, among other revenue streams.
But will going broad endanger the hipness quotient and business model? And will Funny or Die’s Web-first, short-form entertainment translate to other media?
“I think the model will probably adapt,” says Will Richmond, an analyst at VideoNuze, which specializes in online video. “But I think [content crossover] is more complicated, and these are the bridges that they still have to cross.”
CEO Glover says branching into other formats won’t be a problem since it’s the ideas that come first. “Whether it’s a 11/2 -minute video or 28-minute television show or 111-minute feature length film [doesn’t matter] -- the key is, is it a terrific piece of content?” he says.
As Glover talks, he fidgets with a talking bottle opener. When pressed, it snaps “You’re an alcoholic!” in Ferrell’s voice. Which fits: The offices are awash in an almost manic goofiness.
The physical layout hints at an organizational structure that has something of a split personality. Upstairs is the Ferrell-McKay-Henchy company, Gary Sanchez Productions. It’s predictably slick, flooded with sunlight and boasting lots of glass, steel and stained concrete.
Downstairs, where Funny or Die resides, it’s decidedly more DIY and new media -- lots of body piercings, Converse high tops and the occasional flash of pink hair. An abandoned, half-eaten sandwich sits by the bathroom sink, which is broken.
“It’s pretty crazy, but it’s great,” says Ferrell, who thinks of the site as “modern-day vaudeville.” He stresses how little time and resources go into each video. “It’s very low impact in terms of the writing and the acting, and yet it can have a huge impact in terms of how many people can see it.”
President of Production Mike Farah’s lean staff of producers and writers-directors-editors puts out 40 to 45 short videos a month. And all on a compressed timeline by Hollywood standards. Concepts are nailed on the fly and Web videos are set up via quick phone calls to friends, often bypassing agents and managers entirely. At the height of the Charlie Sheen media frenzy, they pitched him a cooking video. Three days later they shot it, and it was live on the site the next day.
“It was a 24-hour turnaround. By Hollywood terms, that’s lightning speed,” Farah says.
The insular, almost frat-like network of A-list friends itching to work with Funny or Die further accelerates an already quick Web production cycle. The idea for the video “When Harry Met Sally 2,” starring Billy Crystal and Helen Mirren, was sparked at Crystal’s grandson’s birthday party and came together within days. His daughter directed it, another daughter appeared in it and his sons-in-law wrote it.
Speed and access to talent are key to Funny or Die’s success and gives it an edge when pitching projects to networks. It’s able to quickly and cheaply make pilot samples and sizzle reels to show executives what they’re going for as well as test-drive material on the site to get user feedback.
The latest brainchild -- and a hint of FOD’s broad ambitions -- is a book publishing arm, still in the exploratory stages. Though that might seem counterintuitive to FOD’s digital roots, Farah envisions it being an innovative hybrid of paper and e-books. He sees old-fashioned, classic humor books on the one hand and a Mad Magazine/McSweeney’s-type e-magazine for iPads on the other.
Just as two- to three-minute videos work online, so too would short stories, blogs-turned-books and novellas work for its book brand. They’ve just begun to meet with authors and publishers, and Farah thinks the idea of marketing books for free on their site will be “very compelling to traditional publishers.” The goal is to have a book out “in some form” by year’s end.
Mark Groubert, an editor for five years at the humor magazine National Lampoon, urges caution about Funny or Die’s expansion. “This is a very small, dark, sarcastic comedic little world that they’re in,” he says. “Culturally, for them to go that wide out, they’d have to broaden the comedy, thereby dispersing or diminishing the brand.”
And if the launch of “Funny or Die Presents” on HBO is any indicator, there’s much to be learned about crossover. The show proved challenging to adapt from Web to TV at first. According to co-creator McKay, they initially envisioned a show comprising user videos from the site but quickly realized that wouldn’t work legally. “We went from ‘There’s no rules, we can take stuff from the Internet’ to ‘Oh, wait, there are rules,’” McKay says. They ended up hiring users whose content they liked on the site and had them create original material for the show, supplemented by the “exclusive” in-house produced videos they’re known for.
McKay says the site hasn’t been as timely as he’d like it to be. He’s pushed the writers to create more sketches in sync with the news cycle. Like a pig in a Donald Trump wig, for example, or a Kate and William reality show spoof. Unlike “Saturday Night Live,” which is tied to a weekly production schedule, McKay says the FOD site can respond to current events practically while they’re happening.
Where could the seemingly elastic Funny or Die possibly stretch from here? Steele says he’d like to do a Sunday morning “week in review” sports podcast with Ferrell, who envisions one day premiering feature films on the site via download. “That’s something we’re striving for,” Ferrell says.
And then there are ... concert tours? Which is why Matthew Morrison is hanging upside down from the ceiling of an elevator today -- or at least that’s what this trick shot will have the viewer believe. The “Glee” star will soon embark on a 22-city concert tour, during which he’ll show clips of the spoof biopic he’s filming with Funny or Die. It’s the first time the company has inserted videos into a performer’s live show.
“I’m just hoping this will be one of the Funny or Die classics,” Morrison says.
His costar today, “Lost’s” Mader, is just happy to be here. “I just shot [an ABC] sitcom and my friends were, like, ‘Funny or Die? Shut up!’” Mader says. “They care way more about this.”