The Art and Science of Funny or Die
Funny or Die quickly staffed up its creative office in a small bungalow in Hollywood. Lauren Palmigiano was the site's first official employee. Like many of the creative staff, she came from the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) comedy troupe. "When we first started, it was me and three other people on the creative staff, making videos, deciding what the front page should look like, what sections of the site should look like," she says. "It was like four of us doing the job of 20 people.
"We had one camera and a boom mic, no lights," she continues. "We would just sort of call McKay's friends and ask them if they would do something with us. We'd be like, ‘We'll take 2 hours, and we'll get right out of your way.'"
Things have obviously changed considerably in the intervening years, but the ethos of thrift and efficiency hasn't. The creative offices recently moved. But rather than renting out upscale digs, Funny or Die is now housed on the first floor of a nondescript office building just off of Hollywood Boulevard, with Gary Sanchez Productions upstairs. The environment is still very much that of a tech startup-about 30 20-somethings in plaid shirts and jeans. And if they're not wearing as many hats as when Palmigiano started, there's nobody in the Hollywood office who does only one thing.
"You're never not working on a video here," says Eric Appel, another UCB veteran who also wrote for Crank Yankers and Human Giant and who acts as well as writes, directs, and edits. "You shoot your video, then you start editing it. As you're editing it, you're writing the next one. And then you're going into pitch meetings with celebrities."
Ah, yes, the celebrities. While Funny or Die has generated plenty of viral video hits that don't feature Hollywood stars-such as "Uncle Jay Explains the News" and the "High-Five" montages from Almost Twins, a comedy duo featuring Jack Packard and Jake Szymanski, who is also a full-time Funny or Die creative-by far the most popular videos on Funny or Die are those featuring celebrities, such as Jewel, Paris Hilton, Marion Cotillard, and Zach Galifianakis, whose Between Two Ferns interview series pulls in A-listers such as Bradley Cooper and Ben Stiller and has become the site's top-viewed regular series.
Funny or Die's partnership with CAA is responsible for most of the celebrity connections, and Appel says that almost every day they're either shooting a video with or in pitch meetings with celebrities. The day I was in the Los Angeles office, a Funny or Die crew was shooting "Tall Justice" with Miami Heat basketball star Chris Bosh. Most importantly for the site's continued viability, almost without exception, celebrities do the work gratis. So what's in it for them?
"I think it's that they know they can do crazy s-t," says Henchy, who's also an executive producer on HBO's Entourage. "They know they can do stuff they can't do anywhere else. Also, they don't have to fly to New York to be on a talk show, and there's a format that's already set up where you have to sit in a chair and talk to this person."
Funny or Die gives celebrities a chance to work oustide of their comfort zone—like Oscar-winning
actress Marion Cotillard, who loved the idea of highlighting sexual harrassment in the "Forehead
"Yeah, short of hate language and raw porno," says McKay, "You can do anything you want on the site, and there's a democratic component too, where you can get your videos on the front page if enough people vote on it."
Of course, there's still plenty of risqué and not-safe-for-broadcast material on Funny or Die. But as Henchy says, that's part of the appeal. Palmigiano recalls when Cotillard came into the office saying, "I'm always playing depressed women. I want to do something funny."
"So we pitched her the silliest, wackiest ideas," says Palmigiano, "and here's this Oscar-winning actress, in her French accent, saying, ‘I like ze farts. I like ze boobies.'" The result was the "Forehead Tittaes" video that garnered more than 2 million views and drew attention to workplace sexual harassment.
Part of Funny or Die's success has come from the fact that it can create videos quickly. Adam McKay
heard that John McCain's campaign had included Paris Hilton in a TV ad, and within days this video was on the site.
Funny or Die's ability to go from concept to posting quickly is another key to its success. McKay says he was driving in the car when he heard a John McCain campaign ad that compared Barack Obama's celebrity status with Paris Hilton's. "I was like, ‘Oh, checkmate, my friend,' and I got on the phone with [Hilton's] agent, and everything was done in a few days."
Whatever the content, working with Funny or Die offers a low-risk, high-reward proposition for celebrities. If a video goes viral, that's great publicity for an actor, and it can cast him or her in a new public light. If it doesn't, then it quietly fades away. "There's really no such thing as a bomb on the internet," says McKay.
In fact, the whole Funny or Die ethos goes against Hollywood conventions. "It can be as easy as meeting with someone, talking about ideas they like, and getting it to a place where everyone is excited about [it]," says president of production Mike Farah. "Hollywood really can be that easy. I'm proud of the videos, but I'm equally proud of the experience people have working with us."
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