By Liz Shannon Miller
For over seven years now, Funny or Die has not only been an answer to the question “where do people watch video that’s not YouTube?” but a major leader in the space. Where did it come from, though? And what will never change?
Funny or Die first breathed life as a project incubated by Sequoia Capital, in the early heady 2007 days when user-generated video hosting sites like YouTube, Revver, and DailyMotion were some of the big names on the block.
The plan, according to Funny or Die’s vice president of marketing and distribution Patrick Starzan, was always to bring the web a mix of user-generated and professionally-produced content. But the theory was, Starzan said, that “you don’t have a competitive advantage in the long run if you’re just making content.”
Thus, the company went to Hollywood talent agency CAA and ended up pitching Will Ferrell and Adam McKay on the idea of heading up the site. The two “Saturday Night Live” alumni, who were, at that point, comedy icons thanks to films like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” took the opportunity, and thus the site launched on April 17, 2007 with the comedy short “The Landlord.”
“The Landlord” went intensely viral and currently has received 80 million views (for perspective’s sake, that’s about the population of Germany). But for a while afterwards, the site hit a bit of a lull, struggling to bring in talent for its videos.
That all changed in the fall of 2008, thanks to that great fuel source for the fire of comedy: Politics. It began with an ad from Republican presidential candidate John McCain, comparing Democratic candidate Barack Obama to notorious “celebutante” Paris Hilton — it inspired McKay to reach out to Hilton. Within a few days of McCain’s Hilton comment, Jake Szymanski directed Hilton in “Paris Hilton Responds to McCain Ad.”
Starzan said that “Paris Hilton Responds,” in addition to other late 2008 exclusive hits like “Prop 8: The Musical,” were what helped FOD get its reputation as a place where the famous and quasi-famous could show off their senses of humor.
“Those events really put FOD on the map as a place where a lot of people can see your work or talk about you again,” Starzan said. “That’s when it was less about us calling people and more people calling us.”
Currently in Action
Of course, the company has grown from celebrity-driven viral videos to a vast multi-platform slate of content. Funny or Die’s current profile of projects is extensive enough that I am reduced to bullet points:
- Television: The company’s past TV projects are numerous — upcoming ones including a third season of “Billy on the Street,” the Comedy Central series “@Midnight” (hosted by Chris Hardwick), and the IFC series “Spoils of Babylon” (starring Ferrell and Kristin Wiig).
- Film: Thanks to a deal with Scott Pictures earlier this year, FOD will be producing two to three low-budget pictures a year, and is currently in pre-production on the first.
- Events: FOD hit the road this summer with Oddball Fest, which despite an awkward performance or two, hit 13 stops and will wrap up in the next week or so. Starzan says they plan to add more tours each summer. “In a pure economic way, there’s a big upside to it. There are a lot of expenses that go into it, but from a brand awareness standpoint, it’s a huge thing,” he said.
- E-Publishing: Last year, FOD launched “The Occasional,” an experimental, interactive iPad comedy magazine. While “The Occasional” was originally a paid magazine, last May it became free. “We came out of the gate as a subscription model, but that’s not the way we’re going to build installs,” Starzan said. Currently, according to him, there are a little over 100,000 installs of the Occasional app, and plans are in place to increase the issue release schedule.
- Games: Specifically, card games — FOD partnered with Hasbro for an Apples to Apples-esque game where teams compete to pick the best captions for the best photos. The game is now in stores across America, including Wal-Mart and Target, and will receive a big marketing push around the holidays.
What Won’t Change
So things for Funny or Die have definitely evolved since the early days, but even as it moves from the company that cast Gina Gershon as Sarah Palin to a comedy property across multiple media, there will always be a few key elements to its DNA.
For one thing, the company will always have a close relationship with branded content, from on-site advertising to sponsored videos. “Branded entertainment is a huge business for us — it’s a very customized form of entertainment,” Starzan said. “No one cares if they’re being marketed to as long as they’re entertained — if they can engage with something.”
But FOD tries to make those experiences as experimental and non-dull as possible. “Our creative people are always trying to push the edge, but the culture of our company is that we’re working with brands, and trying to put the best content out there,” Starzan said.
And one last thing Starzan says will never change: Anyone will always be able to post their content to FunnyOrDie.com. “UGC will always be the case.”