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WEB SCOUT

Celebrity videos are welcome -- if funny

September 23, 2007|David Sarno | Times Staff Writer

BACK in early 2007, no self-respecting A-lister would be caught dead debasing his name by appearing in videos on the Internet, that unlucrative cyber-badlands still ruled by hordes of tweens, teens and, ech . . . amateurs.

Then along came a 2-year-old named Pearl to change all that. (With help from Will Ferrell.) With 45 million views since its April debut, FunnyOrDie.com's "The Landlord" has become the third-most-watched online video ever, single-handedly making the Net a respectable place for big stars to come out and play. The company is also beginning to cash in on its name, having already made advertising deals with Sony Pictures, ABC and the CW, with plans to host sponsored videos and even dabble in product placement.

"Because of 'The Landlord,' " said Chris Henchy, a writer and producer who runs Ferrell's Gary Sanchez Productions and is a "creative executive" at FunnyOrDie, "everyone in town stood up and took notice." Nowadays when he's talking business with actors or their representatives, the conversation inevitably turns to one question: Are you working on something for the site?

Soon there were new videos featuring the likes of Bill Murray, Danny DeVito, Dane Cook and Jessica Alba, Brooke Shields (yes, Henchy's wife) and Jenna Elfman, making it clear that FunnyOrDie has opened a new channel through which Hollywood's top talent -- writers, actors, and directors -- can get high-profile, low-cost exposure, without the need to assemble a quorum of studio executives.

"Television was always the medium that had a sense of immediacy to it," said Henchy. But now, with online video, that immediacy has been ratcheted. "Someone can have an idea," he explained, "we can shoot it a couple days later, and it can be on the site within a week."

Henchy makes it sound easy, and indeed, the casual feel of Hollywood's best online videos has become a defining characteristic of the nascent form, with no video doing it better than "The Landlord."

Yet even with contributions from a dozen boldface names, no other FunnyOrDie video has come close to the mega-viral ubiquity of that maiden effort.

Is the novelty of big stars doing little videos already wearing off? Or is it that "The Landlord" set such a high standard that those that follow are damned to suffer in its shadow? Or maybe the newer videos are just, like, not as funny?

"The Contract" starring Danny DeVito, is a recent FunnyOrDie entry that was conceived and executed at Internet speed, according to Rob McElhenney, creator of FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." The film's joke is that to keep DeVito on the show for the third season, "Sunny" cast member Charlie Day must satisfy a stipulation in DeVito's contract involving oral sex. McElhenney said they shot the movie with DeVito's personal camcorder in about 45 minutes. The video has scored 200,000 views -- a rather tepid performance. Still, McElhenney insists that the online buzz from "The Contract" -- a keystone of the show's vigorous online advertising campaign -- helped the season premiere of "Sunny" to its best ratings ever, 2.3 million viewers, nearly double the previous season opener.

"The Contract" is not the only FunnyOrDie video to take advantage of an Internet still unfettered by anything as quaint as decency standards. The site's No. 2 video ever is called "Masturbation," while another popular one is "Pornocopia," wherein a man literally disgorges pornography. And as of this writing, the site was also featuring a "humorous" rap video whose title and subject matter cannot even be rendered here euphemistically save to say, you really, really wouldn't want to watch it with your mother.

In the same vein, last week the site posted a video titled "Leaked Jessica Alba and Dane Cook Sex Tape," a short clip of a shirtless Dane Cook performing -- once again -- oral sex on a stuffed penguin. According to the credits on the video, the penguin is voiced by Jessica Alba herself. The credits also say that the video, which FunnyOrDie uploaded, was shot on the set of the just-opened Alba-Cook comedy "Good Luck Chuck," in which Alba plays a clumsy penguin keeper.

Two days after it was posted, the penguin sex video was pulled by Lionsgate, the company behind "Good Luck Chuck," because the video had not been approved as a trailer by the MPAA. Looks like somebody forgot to assemble a quorum on that one!

Before it was pulled, the penguin video had failed to garner much attention. You don't get to see Alba, for one thing. And except for the big names attached, there was nothing new about it -- just search for "stuffed animal sex" on YouTube and you'll see that terrain has been well trod. An old hat on a celebrity is still an old hat.

Much more family friendly is "FCU" -- or Fact Checker's Unit -- a short film posted last week starring Bill Murray. Though Murray deserves a Webby nod for his performance, the piece itself is quite long; by the end of nine minutes, the modern Internet viewer may feel as if he's just finished "Moby-Dick."

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