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

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Now agents and managers are jamming the Funny or Die phone lines, offering up their clients for a chance to be part of the hottest comedy site on the Web. The pay isn't much — nothing, to be precise — but there are other rewards: the publicity boost when a video goes viral and the chance to show you can make fun of yourself and still be a star while doing it. "This is where people come between paying jobs," says Farah. "It shows the power that this piece of the whole entertainment pie now commands. It's become a real part of these people's careers, another way to position themselves."

Funny or Die launched in February 2007, after Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley's top venture-capital firms, approached Ferrell and McKay about starting a website devoted exclusively to comedy. At first it was filled mostly with amateur videos. (Users can vote each one up or down — "funny" or "die" — with the top picks featured on the home page.) But after "The Landlord" created a sensation (it has been viewed more than 72 million times), the operation got professional fast. Andrew Steele, a 13-year veteran of SNL, was brought in to oversee the creative shop, and Dick Glover, a former exec for ABC and NASCAR, took over as business chief. Today the site has a staff of nearly 50, produces about 20 original videos a month (in addition to some 100 a day uploaded by users) and draws an average of 7 million unique visitors a month. With the help of a growing roster of advertisers — not to mention a bare-bones, nonunion staff and free acting talent — the site is actually turning a profit: a typical FOD video costs about $2,000 to make and generates at least $3,000 in ad revenue, much more if the video is a hit. Inevitably, the brand extensions have begun: a weekly series on HBO, a pilot for Comedy Central, a live comedy tour, a movie in development and talk of producing low-budget films for download. "We think there's an opportunity to redefine what comedy is, how it's made and distributed," says Glover.

Clubhouse for Comedy
At the very least, Funny or Die has managed to harness the explosion of comedy on the Web, give it a professional coat of paint and bring it — for better or worse — some Hollywood cachet. Ferrell and McKay, who spend most of their time making movies together, are largely absentee owners, though McKay checks in daily and Ferrell stars in the occasional video. But in building a comedy clubhouse that harks back to such collaborative satire as Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows or the early days of Saturday Night Live, they've created the go-to comedy site for Generation LOL.

FOD's success is also emblematic of a sea change in comedy. Stand-ups still whine about bad dates; sitcom plots keep getting rehashed; sketch comedy continues to limp along on Saturday Night Live. But the real cutting edge has shifted to a new form: short Web videos. Many of these are simply home-movie inanities — cats acting like people or toddlers dancing to BeyoncĂ©. But the Web has also spawned a new generation of comedy creators and an array of distinctive styles, ranging from SNL-type skits like "The Landlord" to parodies, mashups and assorted other goofs on familiar media formats — TV promos, movie trailers, music videos, iPhone commercials, viral videos. They show up on YouTube (and on sites like Barely Political, College Humor and the Onion), circulate via blogs and social-networking sites, spawn fresh variations. In the Jack Benny era, these memes — the Web-favored term — would have been known as running gags. Now everybody gets to run with them.

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