5:27am

Wed May 14, 2014
Television

How Funny Or Die Makes Room For What Works

Originally published on Wed May 14, 2014 2:11 pm

When I showed up at Funny or Die's West Hollywood headquarters earlier this year, staffers weren't hanging out with Will Ferrell or taping a cool new video with the president.

They were kicking around a ball.

"The Internet went out for 10 minutes, so we were playing soccer," said one young staffer, nudging around a ball in a set of offices that looked more like the home base of a Silicon Valley startup than a comedy incubator.

It was just growing pains; at the time, the company was completing its third move in four years.

Funny or Die recently celebrated its seventh birthday. Comic Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay founded it to build a comedy bridge between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

But now, creative director Andrew Steele says they have bigger aims than just creating great online videos: "Our goal is world domination ... content provider on the level of, say, Sony. That's our goal."

That's right: The website that made America believe hoverboards were a real thing now wants to craft TV shows and movies right alongside the biggest studios around.

But to reach that modest goal, Funny or Die must develop its larger projects with the same qualities that make its viral videos work. That means high-quality material, made quickly and cheaply, promoted through lots of social media.

One example: standup comic Billy Eichner's off-the-wall quiz show for the Fuse channel, Billy on the Street. It features Eichner energetically tossing odd questions at New Yorkers, sometimes with celebrities like Amy Poehler or Girls creator Lena Dunham helping out.

"He came in and he pitched the idea for this and I was like, this is such a no-brainer," said Mike Farah, Funny or Die's president of production, noting that Eichner already had a string of popular YouTube videos he hoped to make into a TV series. "We shot a sizzle reel, a very moderately priced sizzle reel, and we ended up getting seven offers."

When Farah saw how comics loved to goof about social media on social media, he got behind an idea that became Comedy Central's game show At Midnight. And Funny or Die even roped in established stars like Tobey Maguire and Kristen Wiig for a miniseries spoof aired on IFC called The Spoils of Babylon.

What links all these shows is Funny or Die's style: subversive, in your face, and always aiming for the biggest laughs.

To find that kind of material, the company often flips the traditional process for developing a TV project, according to Funny or Die president and CEO Dick Glover.

"So, if somebody just says, hey I want a TV show about x,y,z, here's this great deal ... that's not for us," Glover said. "Rather, we say, here's a great piece of content, now let's find the appropriate outlet for that."

But not everybody in Hollywood wants to play along.

Comic Kathy Griffin is fiercely proud of her work ethic and jokes about how she'll show up just about anywhere for a job. But at a press event for a PBS show she's in, Griffin told me she probably won't show up on a Funny or Die video.

"Whenever they've asked me to do something, it's for free," she said. "And all my friends that do it, do it to be cool and for free. And I think that's fun if you're Will Ferrell and you have a gazillion dollars. But for me, I have to make a living just like the next working stiff."

Still, plenty of big names have chosen differently, agreeing to trade their work for the exposure that can flow from Funny or Die's viral videos.

And with consumers seeing less difference between TV on cable, broadcast or the Internet, Funny or Die just might be in the best position to turn viral videos into the next hot TV project.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. Let's change the mood a bit, and hear about a comedy website that has become a master of the viral video: Funny or Die. Its online successes include a spoof interview with comic Zach Galifianakis insulting President Obama, and also a mock police drama featuring "Downton Abbey" star Michelle Dockery. Now, the masterminds behind Funny or Die tell NPR TV critic Eric Deggans they have a greater ambition: competing with big studios like Sony and 20th Century Fox.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When I showed up at Funny or Die's West Hollywood headquarters, staffers weren't hanging out with Will Ferrell or taping a cool new video with the president. They were kicking around a ball.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, the Internet went out for 10 minutes, so we were playing soccer.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What does an Internet company do when we don't have Internet?

DEGGANS: This is what growing pains look like for a company that's moved three times in four years. Funny or Die recently celebrated its seventh birthday. Comic Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay founded it to build a comedy bridge between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But creative director Andrew Steele admits he's got bigger aims than just creating great online videos.

ANDREW STEELE: Our goal is world domination. so content provider on the level of, say - like, Sony. That's our goal.

DEGGANS: That's right: The website that made America believe hoverboards were a real thing now wants to craft TV shows and movies right alongside the biggest studios around. But to reach that modest goal, Funny or Die must develop their larger projects with the same qualities that make their viral videos work. That means high-quality material made quickly and cheaply, promoted through lots of social media; like comic Billy Eichner's off-the-wall quiz show for the Fuse channel, "Billy on the Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")

BILLY EICHNER: Hey, guys. It's Billy. I'm out here in front of Whole Foods, where white people spend more on kale every year than Bush ever spent on WMDs. But don't say that at an Alan Alda dinner party.

MIKE FARAH: He came in, and he pitched the idea for his show.

DEGGANS: Mike Farah, Funny or Die's president of production.

FARAH: I was just like, this is such a no-brainer to take his man-on-the-street stuff and add a game-show element to it. And we shot a very modestly priced sizzle reel, and we ended up getting like, seven offers. We actually had a grid going on to track all the offers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")

EICHNER: Sir, do you want to sing Christmas carols with me and Amy Poehler for a dollar?

AMY POEHLER: Hi!

EICHNER, POEHLER (Singing) Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) la, la, la, la.

POEHLER: Yes!

EICHNER: Yes!

DEGGANS: When Farah saw how comics loved to goof about social media on social media, he got behind an idea that became Comedy Central's game show "At Midnight."

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "AT MIDNIGHT")

CHRIS HARDWICK: You're going to give me as many movies that sound like pooping. For instance, "Operation: Dumbo Drop."

DEGGANS: And Funny or Die even roped in established stars - like Elijah Wood and Kristen Wiig - for a miniseries spoof on IFC, called "The Spoils of Babylon." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Tobey Maguire, not Elijah Wood, is one of the stars of "The Spoils of Babylon."]

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SPOILS OF BABYLON")

TOBEY MAGUIRE: (As Devon) It was Winston, wasn't it?

KRISTEN WIIG: (As Cynthia) Devon, he is but a boy.

MAGUIRE: (As Devon) A boy, a man, a child, an infant, a fetus, a girl, an eagle, a vegetable - what does it matter? There's a clear difference between right and wrong!

DEGGANS: What links all these shows is Funny or Die's style: subversive, in your face, and always aiming for the biggest laughs. To find that kind of material, the company often flips the traditional process for developing a TV project, according to Funny or Die president and CEO Dick Glover.

DICK GLOVER: So if somebody just says, hey, I want a TV show about XYZ, here's, you know, this great deal - that's not for us. Rather, we say, hey, here's a great piece of content, something that makes us laugh. Now, let's find the appropriate outlet for that.

DEGGANS: But not everyone in Hollywood wants to play along. Comic Kathy Griffin shows up just about anywhere for a job. But at a press event for a PBS show she's in, Griffin told me she probably won't show up on Funny or Die.

KATHY GRIFFIN: Whenever they've asked me to do something, it's for free. And all my friends that do it, do it to be cool and for free. And I think that's fun if you're Will Ferrell and you have a gazillion dollars. But for me, I have to make a living, just like the next working stiff.

DEGGANS: Plenty of big stars agree to trade their work for the exposure that can flow from Funny or Die's popular viral videos. And with consumers seeing less difference between TV on cable, broadcast or the Internet, Funny or Die has created a prime spot to turn viral videos into the next hot TV project.

Eric Deggans, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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