Funny or Die: How the Web Is Changing Comedy

Funny or Die is helping reinvent comedy for the Web — and everyone from Oscar winners to teen stars is clamoring to jump on board

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Jeff Minton for TIME

Production chief Mike Farah, center, with the Funny or Die staff

How many comedy writers does it take to make a Hollywood star laugh? A half-dozen staffers for the comedy website Funny or Die are sitting around a conference table on a recent Tuesday afternoon taking a stab at it. Their target: 23-year-old actress Camilla Belle (When a Stranger Calls), the latest Hollywood celeb to make the unlikely pilgrimage to a modest suite of offices on Hollywood Boulevard to discuss starring in a Funny or Die video.

The writers come armed with ideas pegged to Belle's résumé along with a few pet projects in need of a star. Belle appeared in the prehistoric adventure film 10,000 B.C. and had a role in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. How about a sketch in which she insists she won't do another film unless it has prehistoric animals in it? She's into dance, and her mother is Brazilian — maybe a parody of Dirty Dancing using Brazilian fight dancing? The pitches come as fast as Belle can utter her polite, encouraging responses ("That's funny" ... "uh-huh" ... "yeah, yeah, yeah"). A celebrity photo shoot in which the pretentious photographer wields a cheesy cell-phone camera? A commercial for a line of anatomically revealing women's jeans? A fake TV promo for a girls' classic like Little Women or Anne of Green Gables done up in the style of The Hills?

A dozen or so ideas later, Belle is out the door, and Mike Farah, 31, Funny or Die's president of production, has retreated to his office, a couple of writers tagging along, to check on some other projects in the works. He jabs at the speakerphone and puts in a quick call to Charlize Theron's manager to see if they can get her for a cameo in a World Cup bit they're shooting in South Africa. "She loves you guys," says the voice on the phone. "Can you just send me an e-mail?" A writer tells Farah there's a chance they can hook up with NBA star Dwyane Wade in Chicago for a piece they want to shoot at a sporting-goods store. Then an update on the search for a female star to make a cameo in their upcoming Glee takeoff: Meryl Streep said no.

When they launched Funny or Die, or FOD, three years ago, comedy star Will Ferrell and his producing partner Adam McKay envisioned a clearinghouse for amateur comedy videos and a place "for our friends to play." But who knew they had so many friends? Since the website's first hit video, "The Landlord" — a two-minute masterpiece in which Ferrell is a deadbeat tenant arguing with his bullying, profane landlord, played by McKay's 2-year-old daughter — FOD has become a celebrity magnet to rival Vanity Fair's Oscar party. Justin Bieber popped by to shoot a batch of videos casting him as an out-of-control teen star. (He bought the website and renamed it Bieber or Die.) Oscar winner Marion Cotillard starred in a video wearing a pair of fake breasts on her forehead. Paris Hilton used Funny or Die to respond to John McCain's jabs at her during the 2008 presidential campaign, Heidi Montag did one poking fun at her plastic surgery, and seven current and former Saturday Night Live impressionists got together for a "presidential reunion" sketch directed by Ron Howard to urge support for Obama's financial-reform bill.

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