The most popular video of a professional performer on YouTube last week was Beyonce falling down a flight of stairs on a stage in Florida. While the viral video site has meant good times for procrastinating office workers, talent scouts and freestyle flautists finally bringing their music to the masses, YouTube has not had a lot to offer people who already have an agent and publicist beyond a venue to embarrass themselves.
Enter My Damn Channel, a company launching on Tuesday a kind of VIP version of YouTube, with episodic videos produced by comedian Harry Shearer, Rolling Stones producer Don Was, indie filmmaker David Wain and some other people who manage to pay their mortgages by entertaining us. The company will be bringing some old media tricks with it, like syndicating its content on a special section of YouTube, providing money for production and talk about old school actually paying artists a share of revenues from the syndication fees and advertising.
For creative types like Shearer, the web offers the chance to work for the world's best boss: no one. "It's you and the audience and there isn't this array of comedy experts that movie studios and TV networks have on hand to make things so much better," says Shearer, best knowndepending on your demographicas the the bass player from Spinal Tap or the voices of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders and other characters. Shearer's web oeuvre will include weekly music videos of his original songs, political parodies like "No Cooler for the Scooter" sung as Dick Cheney in an intimate night club setting, and "Connect the Dots," a James Bond-ish retelling of the Bush/Cheney years. Producer Was will tap his thick Rolodex of rockers to host Links, a music interview series, and Wain will produce comedy shorts on his channel Wainy Days, the first of which stars Elizabeth Banks from The 40 Year-Old Virgin.
Other companies have been attempting to professionalize the Wild West world of web video with varying degrees of success. The current gorilla of the medium is Funnyordie.com, Will Ferrell's production company bankrolled by some venture capitalists. FunnyOrDie debuted in April with the short film The Landlord, a potent comedy formula of A-list goofball and trash-talking toddler that has now been viewed more than 41 million times; subsequent videos haven't reached The Landlord's heights of humor, however. On SuperDeluxe.com, owned by Turner Broadcasting (which, like TIME, is a division of TIME Warner), some celebrity series seem to existgaspsolely as a means for self-promotion. Master P's "Master P Theater" series, for instance, is really a series of ads for the rapper's straight-to-DVD movie, Black Supaman.
My Damn Channel, according to CEO Rob Barnett, will curate a steady stream of original programming. "Instead of just saying, 'Hey, we have one Will Ferrell video and thousands and thousands of things from all over the world,' we wanted to work with a small number of talented people from different disciplines so we could offer high-quality entertainment consistently," says Barnett, a former MTV and VH1 executive.
Whether professional performers can build the kind of loyal audiences on the web that, say, cat-in-a-bathtub videos do, remains to be seen. But, at least for now, there's room to learn. "Maybe 20 years down the line the rules will have ossified and eight guys in suits will be the Internet business," says Shearer. "And they'll have all these theories about what Internet viewers will and will not watch. But right now this is the frontier and creatively that's where I like to live."