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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There was, for example, the slew of "Hitler Reacts" videos: re-edits of the climactic scene from the German movie Downfall in which the F├╝hrer goes ballistic after his generals give him bad news, with the subtitles rewritten to reflect whatever outrage is dominating the news at the moment — from Hillary Clinton's imploding presidential campaign to NBC's dumping of Conan O'Brien from The Tonight Show. So many Web smarties chimed in with their own versions that the film's distributor, Constantin Films, finally demanded that they be taken down because of copyright infringement.

The beauty of the Hitler videos was that they could have been done nowhere but on the Web. Other popular comic themes are less unique to the medium but have reached their apotheosis there: the remixed TV promo, for example (Lost re-edited so it looks like Friends or Baywatch, or Seinfeld redone as a horror film), or the superliteral music video (old MTV hits with new lyrics that describe in ridiculously literal terms the outlandish imagery onscreen). The Internet itself has provided some of the ripest targets. Mel Gibson's recent telephone outbursts were combined, inevitably, with Christian Bale's audiotaped tirade on the set of Terminator: Salvation. A loopy video of a dude raving ecstatically over a rainbow in Yosemite National Park spawned a mashup with the Muppets song "Rainbow Connection."

This is comedy perfectly suited to the Internet: short, democratic, endlessly self-referential — a running satiric commentary on the media stew we're all swimming in. "What I love about this job is that the Internet is everything," says Funny or Die writer-actor Seth Morris, who, like several other FOD staffers, came from the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe. "It's highs and lows. Jon Gosselin, scum-of-the-earth reality-show people, Oscar winner Ron Howard. I feel like I'm closer to the times I'm living in."

Fending Off Stars
Funny or Die has been smart about generating buzz, especially by combining celebrities with political advocacy. (Jack Black, John C. Reilly and Neil Patrick Harris appeared in an elaborate 2008 high-school-musical spoof to protest Proposition 8, California's gay-marriage ban.) But the influx of Hollywood star power has its downside as well: providing made-to-order videos for celebrities shopping for buzz is hardly in the renegade spirit of the Web. "If someone has a bad idea, we'll probably figure out a way not to do it," says Steele. "On the other hand, we don't like to reject people when they're putting themselves, and their own minds and creativity, out for free."

Still, the site manages to subvert the Hollywood ethos even as it buys into it — as in Zach Galifianakis' portrayal of a surly, inept cable-talk-show host in his brilliant "Between Two Ferns" or Brett Gelman's superunctuous star encounters in his "Mr. Celebrity" series. And even as the productions grow more elaborate (like "Brostitute," a slick, funny docu-parody in which Tim Roth stars as a pimp for guys cruising for male buddies), FOD hasn't lost its scrappy, spontaneous spirit. When an aspiring Alabama agriculture commissioner named Dale Peterson caused an Internet sensation with an over-the-top campaign ad, writer-director Jake Szymanski found a horse, cast himself in the lead role and turned around a parody in a day.

"Sometimes it's better to do a video at 80% right now than 100% if it takes five days," says Szymanski, a Northwestern University grad who started uploading videos to Funny or Die when it launched, then got hired as the site's third full-time employee. "It's that vibe of picking up on the first funny joke you heard from your friend. You're grabbing on to the collective unconscious." And sometimes, of course, getting grabbed by it. "The Internet is the modern-day freak show," says Szymanski. "Your funny, smart, three-minute video can always get beaten by a cat with a printer." Yeah, but mash it up with Mel Gibson and you've got a comedy classic.

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